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James DudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2017

Arsenal must beat West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Saturday to revive their hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League and a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

The Gunners have stuttered badly in both domestic and European competition since the turn of the year. The downturn in the north London club’s results has reignited the fierce criticism facing embattled manager Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman is now under intense pressure to deliver a strong finish in what could be his last season in charge at Arsenal.

By contrast, Baggies boss Tony Pulis merits plaudits for putting together a solid campaign. He has guided a functional squad with underrated quality in the forward areas to eighth place in England’s top flight.

However, West Brom have endured their own stumbles since reaching the 40-point mark, losing their last two league games.

Before a preview and closer look at the team news, here are the schedule and viewing details for this vital fixture:

 

Date: Saturday, March 18

Time: 12:30 p.m. GMT, 8:30 a.m. ET

TV Info: Sky Sports 1, NBCSN

Live Stream: Sky Go, NBC Sports App

 

Preview

Fan animosity towards Wenger is set to extend to games away from the Emirates Stadium, following protests before home fixtures against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and Lincoln City in the FA Cup.

Frustrated Gunners supporters have now reportedly crowdfunded a plane to fly above the Hawthorns with a banner calling for Wenger to quit, per James Benge of the London Evening Standard.

Some Arsenal fans are ready to protest again.

Some Arsenal fans are ready to protest again.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It’s a distraction Wenger and his players could likely do without for what’s already sure to be a testing fixture.

At least the Arsenal boss has received a fitness boost, with Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Elneny returning to first-team training following an ankle problem, per Thomas Bristow of the Daily Mirror.

Elneny’s return gives Wenger an extra option in midfield. He has played Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey as a double pivot in recent matches, but introducing Elneny would add a physical presence for what is sure to be a combative encounter at the Hawthorns.

One player Arsenal may miss in the middle is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, after Wenger confirmed the England man is a doubt, along with left-back Kieran Gibbs, per Bristow: “Gibbs is uncertain at the moment and Oxlade-Chamberlain has a test today.”

Midfielder Elneny has made a rapid recovery.

Midfielder Elneny has made a rapid recovery.Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

Elneny’s return is timely if the England international is unable to play. With Mesut Ozil also in line to feature after replacing an injured Oxlade-Chamberlain against Lincoln, the Gunners are well-stocked in the middle.

Things look as strong up front, where former Manchester United man Danny Welbeck is expected to be in the squad after illness forced him out of the Bayern and Lincoln fixtures, per the London Evening Standard‘s Giuseppe Muro.

Welbeck’s pace and direct running could be the key to unlocking a tough Baggies defence that is suited to handling the aerial threat of Arsenal target man Olivier Giroud. The latter is unlikely to find much joy against West Brom centre-backs Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley.

However, putting Welbeck alongside the fleet-of-foot duo Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott would give the Baggies an altogether different threat to worry about.

Welbeck's pace could play a key role at the Hawthorns.

Welbeck’s pace could play a key role at the Hawthorns.Michael Regan/Getty Images

Of course, it’s not as if the hosts can’t pose some problems of their own to a shaky Arsenal back line. In particular, bullish centre-forward Salomon Rondon could prove a menace.

Rondon, McAuley and Craig Dawson all have the power in the air to exploit the Gunners from set-piece situations.

As Adam Bate of Sky Sports detailed, West Brom are masters of these situations under Pulis’ guidance:


Pulis’ appetite for set-piece goals remains and, what’s more, he has proven it is transferable. West Brom currently top the charts for goals from such situations with 16 – that’s three more than any other team in the Premier League.

Of course, they have the players to pull off that strategy. Gareth McAuley’s presence as an aerial threat predates Pulis’ arrival at The Hawthorns and so does Chris Brunt’s delivery. But their success marks a trend that is undeniably linked to their manager.

Yet the Baggies also boast intelligent movement and genuine scoring potential from wide areas, thanks to Belgium international Nacer Chadli. The former Tottenham Hotspur man would no doubt love to put another dent in the Gunners’ season.

Rondon and Chadli are the obvious danger men for the Baggies.

Rondon and Chadli are the obvious danger men for the Baggies.Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

However, the other flank will be weakened for West Brom, with the lively and creative Matt Phillips laid low by a hamstring strain, per Goal’s Chris Wheatley.

Pulis has often succeeded in frustrating Wenger by countering the latter’s adherence to open and expansive football with physical negation. The trait has made West Brom formidable at home and likely to pile more misery on Wenger and Arsenal on Saturday.



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