Arsenal v Leeds United: Lonergan ready to face Gunners’ firing squad INTERVIEW

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In confirming his plans for Monday’s FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Leeds United, Arsene Wenger gave with one hand and took with the other.

“Robin van Persie will certainly be rested for this game,” said Wenger, protecting a striker who has scored 17 Premier League goals this season and 35 in the last calendar year. “But I will play a strong side. A normal side.”

It was almost what Andy Lonergan wanted to hear. United’s goalkeeper was ready to look van Persie in the eye – “He’s the form player in the country and I want to play against guys like him” – but he will find Arsenal close to full strength at the Emirates Stadium.

The 28-year-old would have it no other way.

For if Lonergan aspires to be a Premier League keeper, as the former Preston captain undoubtedly does, then coping on an occasion like Monday night is a pre-requisite for him.

In his view, the key difference between each of England’s four highest divisions is the quality and finesse of the strikers you find in them, and forwards at any level do not come much better than van Persie.

Even without the Dutchman, Wenger has Theo Walcott, Maroune Chamakh and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to rely on, and much of Arsenal’s time this week has been devoted to sealing the signing of Thierry Henry, returning to his spiritual home after four-and-a-half years away.

Chances

Behind Wenger’s attack is a midfield to die for. Should chances flow as Arsenal know they can, Lonergan will find himself in the firing line.

“I see goals going in in the Premier League and I feel sorry for the keepers because the level of finishing is unbelievable,” he said. “I find that the speed of everything is quicker in that league.

“If strikers get a chance or a one-on-one, they don’t think about it.

“The next thing you know there’s a shot coming. That’s the difference between our level and the Premier League.

“Every league you go down, all the way down to League Two, the difference is always the centre-forwards.

“The quality in front of goal gets better the higher you go and this is a Champions League team we’re playing against on Monday. They’ll be very clinical.”

September’s Carling Cup defeat to Manchester United serves to remind Leeds of that.

Thrown into the type of one-off game in which the club under Simon Grayson have traditionally excelled, United were beaten by three first-half goals on a night of measured disappointment at Elland Road.

So used to talking about his players in terms of pride and admiration after fixture like that, Grayson was honest enough to admit that Leeds “didn’t do ourselves justice.”

Manchester United opened the scoring with their first opportunity after 15 minutes and they sealed their win with further goals from Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs.

The latter came in the final minute of the first half and Sir Alex Ferguson felt safe enough to substitute Giggs at half-time. He watched his team pass out the remaining 45 minutes with good discipline and precious little ambition.

“This game’s a bigger one for us because it’s the next one,” said Lonergan.

“That’s the only thing I can say. But obviously the history with Manchester United means that’s probably the biggest game in the country for the Leeds fans.

“We want to give a much better account of ourselves than we did against them at Elland Road. We never got near them.

“I don’t know what happened that night. We were on a decent run at the time but we didn’t do the good things we’d been doing.

“The quality they had just tore us apart and we were lucky because I think they took their foot off the gas in the second half.

“They could probably have got a few more goals and definitely a few more chances. They just kept the ball at 3-0.

“At Arsenal we just have to give ourselves a chance and we’ve got to be on top form. Everybody’s got to be on top form to give ourselves a chance.

“I’ve never played against them before and I’ve never been to the Emirates.

“I went to Highbury once when I was younger and it should be a great night.”

From United’s perspective, Monday’s tie is a potentially welcome break from what is rapidly becoming a stressful Championship term.

Lonergan made no secret of the significance of Monday’s dramatic win over Burnley, Leeds’ first victory in five league games, and the FA Cup’s third round has arrived at a time when Grayson is dealing with concerns about United’s form and a chronic spate of injuries.

His chances of masterminding an upset at the Emirates would be greatly enhanced by the availability of his entire squad – Robert Snodgrass and Jonathan Howson will both be missing at the Emirates – but he would prefer to have a fuller armoury available when Leeds contest their next Championship match at Crystal Palace next Saturday.

Asked if he would have preferred to contest another league game this weekend with a win over Burnley behind United, Lonergan said: “Not really.

“This gives us the chance to get a few of our injured lads back and we’ve got a bit more recovery time with it being on a Monday night.

“I’ve no preference when it comes to games because I just want to play. It doesn’t matter where it’s at.

“A big deal’s been made of our league position but we’re only one point off the play-offs. There’ll be pressure on us at Arsenal but a different kind of pressure.

Bad

“Maybe we can go there and enjoy it a little bit more with it being a cup game.

“Everyone has bad periods and Southampton (the Championship leaders) are having one now. We’ve been having one too. That’s the league for you. These things happen.

“But the dressing room was buzzing after Burnley. The way we did it was edge-of-the-seat stuff and it’s a weight off our shoulders, of course.

“The longer you go without winning, you’re always thinking ‘where’s the next one coming from?”

“But as soon as you win you can’t wait for the next game because you think you’ll win that one too.”

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