Without Fabregas Arsenal may struggle to overcome seasoned Champions Leaguers Porto

Arsenal v Porto, Champions League, March 9, 2010

Arsenal 1.52; Draw 3.75; Porto 6.00

The big news which has rocked Arsenal’s pre-match hopes has been the announcement that captain and talisman Cesc Fabregas will miss the Gunners’ crucial Champions League match with a hamstring injury.

Fabregas’ absence could yet prove decisive in swinging the balance of power back in Porto’s favour. After Lukasz Fabianski had a night to forget in the Dragon’s Stadium in the first leg, the Portuguese head to London with a narrow 2-1 advantage from their first encounter with the Wenger Boys. Sol Campbell’s away goal provided Arsenal with a significant lifeline – a 1-nil victory will do for the Premier Leaguers – but without Cesc Arsenal will without doubt be lacking.

Time after time this season Fabregas has lead the Gunners to victory. His 26 minutes against Aston Villa, his leadership at Stoke following Aaron Ramsey’s horror injury, and as recently as last Saturday where he opened the scoring with a tremendous goal against Burnley.

Heading into a game in which Arsenal know they need to win, without Cesc’s presence, will be a big blow.

Yet Arsenal still have plenty to be optimistic about. Only weeks ago every talking-head worth his paycheck was forecasting the end of Arsenal’s title race, and some were going even as far as to call for the Professor’s P45 after what was perceived to be another failed season. But after four straight wins, and propelling themselves firmly into the championship mix, Arsenal are riding high at the moment and they will look to carry that form into the Champions League.

It is important not to paper over the cracks at the Emirates though, and after the stuttering win over Burnley last time out, Arsenal’s forward-line needs to sharpen up against Porto. Nicklas Bendtner (2.25 to score, 5.50 to score first) had been on a decent goalscoring run before he faced the Clarets, but the young Dane missed a hatful of guilt-edge opportunities before he was subbed for Eduardo da Silva (2.50 to score).

Andrei Arshavin (2.37 to score) could come back into the home attack, although the Russian has also blown hot and cold this season. While eyes remain fixed on Theo Walcott (2.87 to score) down the Gunners’ right, with the debate still bubbling over whether the young Englishman can actually cut the mustard at the highest level, or whether he is just a sprinter in a pair of football boots.

At the back, with William Gallas still sidelined, Wenger may look to rotate Silvestre for Sol Campbell (7.50 to score), while Saturday’s remaining backline of Almunia, Clichy, Vermaelen and Eboue could all keep their starting spots. Abou Diaby and also Alex Song will likely be called upon to offer the Gunners’ defence extra protection from midfield.

And Arsenal will need to be on their guard against Porto – a team who have repeatedly proved themselves in the Champions League and who will undoubtedly provide tough opposition. 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 (3.40 to score, 9.40 to score first), 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.

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 “Falcao” Garcia (3.50 to score). With 21 goals in all competitions this season, Falcao is a top-level striker who has the ability to be one of the top strikers in world football.

Other players of note for Porto include their centre-half pairing of Bruno Alves (5.50 to score) and Rolando; two defenders both noted for their aerial ability in both a defensive and attacking sense. The Dragoes also welcome back Fucile, Rolando, and Raul Meireles after all three players were handed a weekend off in the 2-all draw with Olhanense last time out. And the reigning Portuguese champions also have back star midfielder Cristian Rodriguez, who missed the first leg through injury.

Several facts to chew over before the match.

Arsenal have yet to score in the opening 15 minutes in any competitive match this season, and the Gunners have won only three of their last 15 knock-out games in the Champions League, losing their last three. On the other hand, Porto have a dreadful record when they have travelled to England in European competitions: in 14 visits to these shores, they have lost 12 times and drawn twice.

101gg predicts: Arsenal 1 – Porto 1 (7.50)