Arsenal hit by injuries to Almunia and Gallas
Campbell to play first Champions League game for Gunners since 2006 final
NOT SO very long ago, a trip to the Estadio do Dragao was an occasion for English teams to dread – until, that is, Manchester United and then Chelsea won here inside the last 12 months. If Arsenal are to follow their lead tonight, they will have to do so without two of their most experienced players.
An already testing trip to Porto in the last 16 of the Champions League became a far sterner proposition for Arsenal yesterday with the news they must cope tonight without goalkeeper Manuel Almunia and defender William Gallas. Almunia has aggravated a finger injury that had been troubling him for two weeks while Gallas picked up a calf strain that could keep him out of action for a fortnight.
Lukasz Fabianski will deputise in goal, while Sol Campbell is likely to be given the nod ahead of Mikaël Silvestre in the centre of the defence.
Campbell (35) has not played in the Champions League since he scored Arsenal’s goal in the 2-1 defeat to Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final in Paris. If he plays tonight, Campbell will make his 200th appearance for the club. It would mark a quite remarkable turnaround for the 35-year-old, who earlier this season turned out for Notts County against Morecambe in League Two.
Arsène Wenger has little choice but to throw Campbell in against the Portuguese champions. “Sol has experience. That was one of the key reasons that we re-signed him,” the manager said. “I thought that, if he needs to come in, he can give that to us. He has done well and coped well.
We have Silvestre who can come in, too, but the difference is that if Silvestre plays then we have two left-footed players at centre-half.
“Certainly, he didn’t think that, when he signed for Notts County six months ago, he would be involved in a Champions League game now. But when you have quality you can always come back, though it’s not sure yet that he will play.”
Wenger also put his trust in 24-year old Polish international Fabianski, whose temperament for the big occasion was questioned last season when he was at fault for both Chelsea goals in Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat in the FA Cup semifinal.
His form this season has also been erratic, with Arsenal having lost three of the five games in which he has started. The Arsenal manager can take more comfort from Fabianski’s performance when he came on for Almunia during the Champions League quarter-final first leg in Villarreal last season. He did not concede either in that match or in the second leg. In fact, the Pole has not conceded a goal in the Champions League in 243 minutes.
Wenger said: “I have complete faith in Fabianski. He has shown both that he has exceptional talent, but that he also lacks a little bit of experience, for example against Chelsea. That’s part of the learning process. I believe he’s a very intelligent goalkeeper and he will have learned from his mistakes.”
Wenger called for his side to produce a “special” performance in the town where Jose Mourinho, “the Special One”, made his name. The Gunners lost 2-0 here last season in a Champions League group game.
“We can deal with it. We have the players who can come in and do well because they have the experience,”
Wenger said. “They’ve played in Champions League games, so we cannot complain about that. That’s part of a successful team, to go into big games without your best squad.”
For Wenger, that means a return to the determination his side showed in 2006 when they reached the final on the back of some resolute away performances, often when they were missing key players through injury.
“We need to revive that spirit,” he said. “We need to dig deep. We know that. You do not go to Porto, who have played 10 consecutive years in the Champions League, and get away with an easy game. We know that. We need to be special. We cannot turn up in the last 16 with an average game. We know Porto are always difficult, very committed, technically very good.”
Arsenal will also be without Alexander Song, Andrei Arshavin, Robin van Persie and Eduardo tonight, meaning Nicklas Bendtner will start his first European match since September. Wenger said he expects great things from Bendtner. “He is 22 and he can now start to play at the top level.”
Turning to domestic matters, Wenger stressed his opposition to the plan to introduce a play-off for the final Champions League place. “When you are fourth in the league after 38 games you don’t want to battle with a team that is 10 points behind you,” he said.
“That is why the table is there.”
Porto v Arsenal, Live, RTE2, UTV, 7.45