Arsenal set to benefit from fitness boost ahead of derby vs. Spurs
With Arsenal's infamously fragile squad, the international break is always a nerve-wracking period for Gunners fans. Supporters scour the headlines, desperately hoping their key players return to London unscathed. This week, there will be more prayers said and fingers crossed than usual because, when the Premier League resumes at the weekend, Arsenal face a hugely important fixture against rivals Tottenham.
Thus far, though, the indications are that any fears may have been misplaced. Arsenal are actually heading into the derby in unusually good healthy.
Of course, there had to be one Arsenal casualty in this international period. Olivier Giroud has already returned to London after sustaining a thigh injury during France's 2-0 win over Wales. Giroud scored in the game and is now his nation's seventh top scorer of all time, but it's not a massive blow to his club.
Indeed, Arsenal should be able to cope without Giroud against Spurs. Although his record of 29 goals in 69 caps for France is nothing to be sniffed at, he is no longer an automatic starter for either club or country. Alexandre Lacazette may have missed out on a starting spot for Arsenal's last big game at Manchester City, but after the former Lyon man came off the bench to thrash home the Gunners' only goal he'll surely be named in the line-up on Saturday.
Giroud would have provided a useful option from the bench, but Arsenal have at least received a boost with the news that Danny Welbeck is now fit to play. The England international rejoined Wenger's first-team sessions shortly before the City game and, with a fortnight's training under his belt, should be raring to go.
There might even be a chance that Welbeck starts. This season, Arsene Wenger has sought to include him whenever possible.
The manager's eagerness to deploy Welbeck is presumably two-fold: firstly, he values his tactical discipline and workrate. However, there's also a sense that he might be more willing to invest playing time in Welbeck than Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, both of whom seem certain to leave the club in the near future.
The Tottenham game is sure to be a physical, tactical affair -- and that would suit the athletic and astute Welbeck. Though, a match of this magnitude might come too soon for a player who was last seen in action a month ago.
Another Arsenal player in the France vs. Wales fixture was Aaron Ramsey, and fortunately he emerged unharmed. Chris Coleman has consented to rest him for Wales' friendly against Panama, so the midfielder ought to be fit to start against Spurs. That's a big lift: Ramsey's problematic hamstrings mean his international involvement is always a concern for Arsenal fans. He's far from the perfect midfielder, but he remains the best Arsenal currently have at their disposal.
Wenger will also be delighted to have Shkodran Mustafi back in the ranks. Against City, a shortage of centre-backs led to Francis Coquelin being pressed into action in an unfamiliar role -- with unsurprising results.
Mustafi will resume his position at the centre of the back three, and may even be tasked with a man-marking job on Harry Kane. He carried out a similar role when up against Alvaro Morata of Chelsea in September and kept the Spaniard very quiet. Kane invariably shines against Arsenal, so anything Mustafi can do to stop him could prove invaluable.
With Mustafi, Ramsey and Welbeck all fit to start, Arsenal's squad has been strengthened right through the spine of the team. The challenge now is for Wenger to select the right XI.
Against City, he made a couple of bold decisions which backfired -- Lacazette ought to have started; Coquelin did little to justify his selection. The Arsenal manager can't afford any similar errors in judgement when Tottenham come to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.