With just two games remaining until Premier League teams break for the World Cup, victories over Chelsea and Wolves will ensure Arsenal are top of the table when they return.
The Gunners beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 in their last league game, overcoming an injury to Bukayo Saka to put four second-half goals past Steve Cooper’s strugglers. Saka’s fitness was always going to be one of the main concerns with a trip to Chelsea around the corner, so fans will have been delighted to see the England star back on the training pitch.
That wasn’t the only thing to catch the eye with the Gunners hosting FC Zurich before their trip to west London. Here are five things Mirror Football noticed from the latest Arsenal preparations.
Bukayo Saka has gone from being a doubt for the World Cup to a doubt for the weekend to, now, a possible starter. While Mikel Arteta might not risk the 21-year-old against Zurich, with a win needed to avoid the Europa League’s play-off round, things are looking good for the Chelsea game.
“It was a bad kick,” Mikel Arteta said after Saka was forced off early in the Forest game. “Right from the beginning he was limping, but I don’t see any further than that. Let’s see how he is in the next couple of days.”
The return suggests, as the manager hinted, that the kicks received by Saka on Sunday played a part in his discomfort. It will now be interesting to see how much the academy graduate is used in the coming games.
Zinchenko back in action
Someone who has been unavailable for longer is Oleksandr Zinchenko. The Ukrainian has played just once since September’s international break, starting the North London Derby, and there has been no sign of him since.
Until now, that is. Zinchenko joined his team-mates in training, though a return date has not been confirmed. The summer signing has played just 20 minutes in Europe, coming off the bench in the reverse fixture in Zurich, but might not be risked with big league tests imminent.
“Alex [Zinchenko] is more recent and has just two one or two training sessions and Bukayo has missed one or two and was fine today,” Arteta said in his press conference ahead of the Europa League game. Given the former Manchester City defender’s early-season form, he would be an asset if available against Chelsea.
Elneny all smiles
” Mo [Elneny] had a long-term injury but he has recovered in a good way and now he’s been training with the team for a week or two,” Arteta explained. The Egypt international played 90 minutes against Fulham in late August but has not featured since.
The former Basel man hasn’t had the best of time with injuries during his time in north London, but a return to play an important part at the end of last season was enough to earn him a contract extension. As the 30-year-old continues his recovery from a thigh problem, Arteta will have a decision to make on when to throw Elneny back into the mix.
A chance for youth
A number of fringe players will be pushing for involvement in Europe, if not against Chelsea. Summer signing Marquinhos has earned minutes in the competition, while teenage defender Zach Awe – who made his first Premier League bench last season – was also spotted training with the first team.
If Elneny doesn’t feature against Zurich, that could mean an opportunity for Bradley Ibrahim. The youngster benefited from training sessions with Jack Wilshere last season, and while he has yet to make his senior bow he was spotted training with the senior squad in late October.
A defensive midfielder, 18-year-old Ibrahim was on the bench for the away games against Bodo/Glimt and PSV Eindhoven without making it onto the pitch. Arteta has been willing to hand minutes to academy stars this term, with the Premier League debut for 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri a prime example, and Ibrahim could be next.
Arsenal have impressed in league games against Chelsea of late, but have done so without being defensively solid. The last eight meetings between the clubs in all competitions have seen the north London side keep just one clean sheet, in a 1-0 win in May 2021, but they’ll hope things have changed at the back.
Since William Saliba returned from his loan at Marseille, Arsenal have boasted the second-best defensive record in the Premier League. Their clean sheet against Forest was a fifth in 12 league matches, and they have also recorded shut-outs in three of their five European ties.
Saliba was spotted getting instructions from Arteta during a one-to-one chat during their training session. While it’s unclear whether the Frenchman will start on Thursday, the tips could well have arrived with Sunday’s game against the Blues in mind.