Gunners must cope without Fabregas
NO ONE would dare call Arsenal spineless after the spirited reaction to Aaron Ramsey's traumatic injury, yet tonight they face the biggest test of their season without the central core of their team.
William Gallas and Robin van Persie remain the victims of long-term injuries, while Cesc Fabregas, a player described yesterday by Manuel Almunia as "the captain and spirit" of Arsenal, has been ruled out with a hamstring complaint.
Even so, the stubborn resilience that has come to complement Arsenal's beautiful football is underlined by the fact that they are clear favourites to prevail without their most important defender, midfielder and attacker.
They must also overcome a 2-1 first-leg deficit and the unwanted history of having previously overturned a first-leg deficit in Europe just once in nine attempts. The vast majority of Arsenal's team were not even born when that last happened way back in 1978 but, ever the optimist, Arsene Wenger has been stressing the importance of Sol Campbell's away goal in Porto.
"We have good a chance to make history," said the manager. "And it will be amazing if we get through. It is true that at the start of the season you would want Fabregas, Van Persie and Gallas to be the spine of the team but without them we can show that we are still strong enough.
"To score away from home is still a massive advantage in Uefa rules; that is why we are confident that we can do it. If we had lost 1-0, it would have been a terrible result. We are in a good position so let's just go for it."
Such positivity is likely to be reflected in an attacking team, even in the absence of Fabregas. With Ramsey out until at least the beginning of next season, the most obvious replacement would be Abou Diaby, although Wenger may well be tempted to utilise the versatility and guile of Samir Nasri in a more advanced position.
With Alex Song and Denilson both also available, there are plenty of midfield options even without a player who has come to provide an almost talismanic influence this season.
"The difference in Fabregas is unbelievable; he is completely mature now and he looks to dictate games but one year ago he was not able to do that," Wenger said.
"Without him, we will have to share the responsibility and make sure we have the right players who can technically lead the game. We couldn't take a gamble -- to play again would be significant damage and he could be out for a month. The absence of Cesc is not any excuse; we have enough players and a strong enough squad."
With a scan yesterday showing no serious damage, Fabregas is most likely to return against West Ham on Saturday week, although there is still a slight chance of him facing Hull City this weekend.
Wenger has ordered an internal investigation into the spate of injuries this season but, with a combination of impact and muscular problems, he has been unable to find a common explanation.
In that context, Arsenal's ongoing involvement in the Premier League title race is a testament to the depth of a maturing squad and, should they now end such a disrupted season with a trophy, it would surely stand as Wenger's greatest achievement. With Gallas facing the prospect of another month out, Wenger will again turn to Campbell's experience.
"He can spread that through the team and give advice -- he gives us a good mixture," said Wenger.
A major question also surrounds the attack, with Nicklas Bendtner expected to continue as the main central striker despite a performance against Burnley on Saturday that was most notable for an extraordinary sequence of missed chances.
Outwardly, Bendtner remains supremely confident but, with the options of Andrei Arshavin and Eduardo, the final decision will be finely balanced. In Bendtner's favour is the fact that his physical presence seem to create space for others and also provides an aerial threat.
"I have to find a balance in the team to be offensively strong without neglecting our defensive side," Wenger said. "On confidence you cannot fault Bendtner. He is one who can take remarks and critics and analyse it without being offended.
"People take a lot the negative side of his confidence but he has as well a positive side. He can face his problems and analyse it and change his behaviour.
"I don't know what he said to the players after Saturday but he has not fooled himself. He knows that he could have scored. I'm convinced that he is really improving. For me, it was an isolated game."
With Liverpool already eliminated, Arsenal's match tonight will also provide an insight into whether English clubs' European dominance is diminishing, following consecutive seasons when they provided three of the four semi-finalists.
Asked if the remaining Premier League clubs would advance, Wenger added: "Yes, but it will be hard. Manchester United should not have a big problem and, although Chelsea and Arsenal will be tight games, I think we can both make it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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