Porto v Arsenal, Champions League, February 17, 2010
You’d like to think that Arsenal fans will know that their narrow 1-nil victory over Liverpool last time out was hardly a result worthy of proving that the Gunners have turned a corner this season.
The past few weeks have marked another trying period for Arsene Wenger’s charges as the north Londoners were comprehensively dumped out of the FA Cup by Stoke 3-1, after which they were held to a goalless draw away at Aston Villa followed by back-to-back defeats to fellow title hopefuls Manchester United and Chelsea.
With the league, however remote, the only domestic trophy still in the Gunners’ grasp this season, all of a sudden the Champions League has arguably become their most fertile battleground this season. But while Arsenal continue to attract praise for their style of football and the moral high-ground on which the club sits, particularly financially, doubts remain as to whether the current Arsenal squad have the guile and nous to win Europe’s premier club competition. (Porto are 11/5 to qualify the tie, Arsenal are 40/85.)
And those doubts have increased as kick off in Portugal draws ever closer, with reports ruling out a host of key players from Arsenal’s likely starting XI.
The big news revolves around the withdrawal of Andrei Arshavin from selection due to a hamstring injury. Arshavin may have scored only one goal in his past 12 appearances for Arsenal, but with Robin van Persie still recovering from a serious ankle injury, the Russian remains crucial to Wenger’s attacking gameplan and his absence in Porto will be sorely missed.
Arsenal’s headaches worsen with news that Alexandre Song is also a major doubt for the match. Song, who has developed well in central midfield this season, was unable to complete Monday’s training session because of a knee problem and looks unlikely to be risked in the first-leg on Wednesday.
And there is even more worries for the Professor to contemplate, as reports circulate that star defender Thomas Vermaelen is also struggling for match fitness following the centre-half’s knock to his leg which he suffered against Aston Villa three weeks ago. While Vermaelen should overcome his discomfort to make the starting line-up, doubts also concern the availability of William Gallas, with the Frenchman struggling with a back injury.
The tabloids have jumped all over the Vermaelen/Gallas injury stories to talk up the possibility of Sol Campbell getting his first Champions League run-out since the defender headed the Gunners into the lead against Barcelona in the 2006 final. But while that story has a large slice of romance attached to it, Campbell’s inclusion will likely be avoided at all costs with the centre-half still yet to prove the doubters wrong that he has the match-fitness to play in such a crucial match. (Arsenal are 11/5 to keep a clean sheet, 2/5 against.)
In light of all the selection issues facing Arsenal, it is expected that Denilson will slot into the midfield alongside the ever-improving Abou Diaby and talisman of the side, captain Cesc Fabregas. Wenger has more options when it comes to replacing Arshavin, with Eduardo da Silva and Nicklas Bendtner both now available after their own injury setbacks, while Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri will all be vying for a starting place. (Arsenal are 16/5 to score in both halves.)
Arsenal’s hit-and-miss season is comparable to the difficulties Porto find themselves in at present. Also occupying third-place in their domestic league, Porto appear to be a team lacking the highs of yesteryear, however it would be wrong to think that the Portuguese outfit will be easily rolled over by the Gunners.
Porto have an excellent European record. 2003/04 winners under Jose Mourinho, the Dragoes qualified to the knock-out stages of the competition with two matches to spare after being drawn in a group with Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and APOEL.
After being knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United last term, Porto have undergone a reshuffle of their squad. Star players Lisandro Lopez, Lucho Gonzalez and Aly Cissokho all departed the club after their eye-catching performances in last season’s competition, and in their wake Porto have the air of a club still trying to forge their new identity.
Domestically Porto’s squad rebuilding has taken a massive blow with the six-month suspension of striker Hulk for his part in a brawl at Benfica earlier in the season. Hulk, a Brazilian international forward with a superb left-foot, has been sorely missed in the Liga Sagres, however his suspension does not apply to the Champions League and accordingly manager Jesualdo Ferreira will be eager to recall the striker to his starting line-up. (Porto are 8/1 to win both halves.)
Hulk’s inclusion will be a cause of concern for Arsenal’s defence, who will also have to be on their guard to stop Porto’s main-man this season, Colombian forward Radamel â€œFalcaoâ€ Garcia. With 20 goals in all competitions this season, Falcao is a top-level striker who has the ability to be one of thetop strikers in world football.
Other players of note for Porto include their centre-half pairing of Bruno Alves and Rolando; two defenders both noted for their aerial ability in both a defensive and attacking sense. The Dragoes also welcome back Raul Meireles into their midfield alongside former River Plate star Fernando Belluschi, however, the reigning Portuguese champions will be without star midfielder Cristian Rodriguez who is undoubtedly a big loss.
Few teams go to the Estadio do Dragao and earn a victory, and Arsenal will be no different. The Gunners may have undoubted class, but Porto remain one of the most under-rated sides in the European game at present, even if they are not of the calibre of Jose Mourinhoâ€™s famous 2004 vintage.
101gg predicts: Porto 2 – Arsenal 0 (15/1)
Full match odds here.