Speaking to reporters ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup clash with Middlesbrough, Arsene Wenger indicated Gabriel Paulista would likely start for Arsenal.
“He’s very close to [making his debut],” said Wenger. “He likes to defend. It’s more and more difficult to find people like that.”
The Brazilian center-back was signed from Villarreal last month but has yet to make an appearance in an Arsenal shirt.
After the ups and downs of the Gunners’ early season, the FA Cup is probably Arsenal’s best shot at silverware at this point. But that said; retaining the Cup is unlikely to be Wenger’s priority. The battle for third and fourth place is heating up and could go down to the wire. Manchester United, Southampton, Tottenham and even Liverpool are all in competition with Arsenal for the Champions League spots.
Arsenal are also the only Premier League outfit still involved in the FA Cup and Champions League. With a Round of 16 clash with Monaco looming at the end of the month, Wenger will need to think about maintaining his rotation.
The problem for Arsenal is that Sunday at the Emirates, they’ll be facing a tough Middlesbrough side that just knocked Manchester City out of the competition. Boro have the best defense in the Championship, have won five matches on the bounce, and have not lost since mid-October. If Wenger does chance a B-side, he risks being knocked out of the Cup, and barring unexpected success in the Champions League, going another season without silverware.
“Any team that plays at the top of the Championship is a danger for anyone,” said Wenger. “[Middlesbrough] deserved their win at City. They are well organized, play good football. They have a good pace and they are very creative.”
Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny looks set to make his return against Boro. The Polish keeper has been banished to the bench since his “smoking in the boys’ room” shower incident on New Year’s Day after Arsenal’s 2-0 loss to Southampton.
One player who won’t feature is Aaron Ramsey. The Welsh midfielder re-aggravated a hamstring injury against Leicester midweek, limping off just moments after coming on as a sub. Jack Wilshire on the other hand, is said to be making progress on his recovery and could play a part in Sunday’s tie, despite having been sidelined for nearly four months with an ankle problem.
“Jack Wilshire is back in normal training but he has been out for four months and misses competition,” said Wenger. “He worked very hard, focused, committed, but it will take him a while to get back to a competitive level.”
In-form striker Olivier Giroud is likely to get the start Sunday. But Alexis Sanchez, the Gunners’ best player this season, picked up a knee-knock against Leicester and is unlikely to feature. With Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also out, Wenger is likely to go with a midfield combination of of Tomas Rosicky, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and possibly Mesut Ozil. Giroud could be joined in attack by Theo Walcott, or possibly Danny Welbeck.
If Paulista does start, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be partnered with Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny. Either way the back four is likely to be filled out by the likes of Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs.
While Wenger is aware of the challenges his squad will be faced with Sunday, he was equally aware of the opportunities at hand. “It’s a big challenge and a big opportunity for us as well, that is how we have to look at it,” said Wenger. “If we qualify, we are in the quarterfinal. We have the luck with the draw to play at the Emirates, so let’s take this opportunity.”