Robin van Persie is set to play in Arsenal’s Carling Cup quarter-final against Wigan Athletic at Emirates Stadium tomorrow night with Arsène Wenger hoping that the Holland striker will seize the opportunity in what is effectively his second comeback from ankle-ligament damage.
Van Persie, who suffered the injury at Blackburn Rovers at the end of August, was passed fit at the beginning of this month but his return to the Arsenal team has been muted.
In the six matches for which he has been available he has appeared in only two, as a substitute, against Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur – his total game time has been 54 minutes – and last week Wenger left him behind in London when the squad travelled to Portugal for the Champions League group game against Braga.
The manager wanted him to work on his fitness, which he did, but the fact that Van Persie spent further time wearing a protective boot on his left foot indicated that the club’s medical staff were not entirely convinced that the injury had healed. Van Persie was an unused substitute in the 4-2 win at Aston Villa on Saturday.
The 27-year-old has made one other appearance this month, which is something of a moot point at Arsenal. He played in the second-half of Holland’s 1-0 friendly victory over Turkey in Amsterdam on 17 November, setting up the goal for Klaas?Jan Huntelaar.
Wenger was furious with the Holland coach, Bert van Marwijk, for naming Van Persie in his provisional squad, insisting that he was not fully fit and fearing the potential for the player to suffer a set back if he featured.
Wenger’s stance did soften as Van Marwijk finalised his squad and the game approached, largely because Van Persie had come on against Newcastle on 7 November, and the two managers reached what he suggested was a beneficial agreement for all parties in that Van Persie would play for only 45 minutes.
After the game, Van Persie described the situation as “win-win”. The forward said: “Everything went according to plan. The training that I’ve had with the Dutch team, I have not had at Arsenal.”
Wenger, though, is no fan of international football, particularly not friendlies, and Van Persie’s desire to play for his country, having failed to complete a full match at club level all season, may have grated.
Wigan’s visit offers the opportunity for Van Persie to blow away the cobwebs, and show not just his manager but the Arsenal support that he could yet be their trump card as the season heads towards its turn. As Wenger has been quick to stress, Arsenal are only two points off the Premier League’s summit and are a home win over the Group H whipping boys Partizan Belgrade away from the Champions League’s last 16.
“Robin will certainly play, yes, but I haven’t decided my starting line-up yet,” Wenger said. “Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner will be involved but I don’t want to give the team out. The only thing I can promise is that we will take the game seriously.”
Wenger was asked whether Van Persie’s selection would necessitate a change of style as he was a different type of striker to Marouane Chamakh, who has played so far this season. “Yes, a little bit,” Wenger replied. “Robin can play on his own up front and he can play in behind so I will have to think about that overnight.”
Wenger will be without the centre-half Sébastien Squillaci, who has a knee problem but, remarkably, Emmanuel Eboué is back in the squad. The Ivorian was taken from the pitch on a stretcher against Braga last Tuesday with damage to a medial knee ligament and Wenger said that he would be out for “four weeks minimum” and possibly up to six. He remained firm in that conviction on Thursday but Eboué has now turned out to be fine. “When we made the scan,” Wenger said, “his knee was swollen but the ligament was intact and the tests were successful.”
As he has done so far in this season’s Carling Cup, Wenger will field a strong starting XI, and it could mean disappointment for the Mexico forward Carlos Vela who, according to his brother, may soon begin to consider his future at Emirates Stadium.
“He just wants the chance to show what he can do for Arsenal and maybe if that doesn’t happen, he will think about his future,” said Alejandro Vela, who plays for the Mexican side Cruz Azul. “Important clubs are interested in his services. Now he has a European passport, it could open the market for him.”