ARSENAL suffered two injury setbacks yesterday when Andrey Arshavin was ruled out of tomorrow's Champions League match against Porto with a strained hamstring and Alexandre Song was unable to complete a training session because of a knee problem.
Arsene Wenger will give Song one final opportunity to prove his fitness today, but unless there is a considerable improvement in his condition he will not travel to Portugal for the round-of-16 first leg.
The one piece of good news on a dispiriting day for the Arsenal manager was the recovery of Eduardo da Silva, who is a possible replacement for Arshavin after shaking off his own hamstring problem.
Arshavin was not expected to be back in time after limping off during the second half of last Wednesday's 1-0 win over Liverpool, but Song's probable absence is a fresh blow. The Cameroon midfield player also picked up an injury against Liverpool but was able to finish the match and it was hoped that a period of rest would enable him to recover to face Porto.
Given Song's limited contribution to training, however, such an optimistic scenario is extremely doubtful, leaving Wenger to reshuffle his midfield. The Frenchman was already planning an uncharacteristically cautious game plan in the absence of Arshavin, though a strategy of containment will not be so easy to execute without Song, Arsenal's main defensive bulwark.
"We know that when you go to Porto you need a solid defensive performance," Wenger said yesterday. "I was reassured with our defence (last) Wednesday -- that was maybe the biggest part of our game against Liverpool. We looked solid defensively for the first time in the last three big games, and that is vital before you go for a Champions League game.
"I believe in the first leg our defensive performance will be important because against Manchester United and Chelsea we were 2-0 down after 20 minutes and that is massive in games. So let's keep our defensive discipline we had against Liverpool and I am sure we can score when we play.
"Porto is a tough draw. They don't look like a prestigious team, but every year they are in there and they can surprise people. They have been playing very well recently."
Denilson is likely to be recalled for Song, although Wenger will also give greater responsibility to Abou Diaby, who is a physically imposing player even if his manager admires him chiefly for his attacking ability.
Wenger has more options when it comes to replacing Arshavin, with Eduardo, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott contesting one place as Samir Nasri has recovered from the concussion he sustained against Liverpool.
"Diaby for me is the player who is going step by step higher," Wenger said. "He missed a complete year with his ankle injury (in 2006/07) and since he came back last year he was out a lot, but this year in central midfield he has really stepped up and improved tremendously.
"Diaby offers height and a physical presence, and when he is there we look strong in the challenges and strong in the air. He gives us goals as well -- a fantastic contribution."
One other area of concern for Wenger is the fitness of Thomas Vermaelen, who revealed yesterday that he is still playing through the pain barrier after injuring his right leg against Aston Villa last month.
"It turned out I could play against Manchester United, but after that game I had some more problems so I went for another scan," the Belgium defender said. "We could see then that there was a big bruise on the bone. It is painful, but that can be controlled with medicine and when it is not broken, you can't do too much wrong. It is not a big problem to play, but it will take some time to go away."
©The Times, London