Arsenal reacquaint themselves with European action tomorrow when they visit the Estádio do Dragão for the third time in four seasons. The Dragon’s Den in Porto hasn’t been a good hunting ground for the Gunners, having only previously managed a scrappy goalless draw in the 2006-2007 campaign, and a 2-nil defeat last season.
Jesualdo Ferreira’s Porto’s side are in fine form with a 12 game unbeaten run and having scored 12 goals with only three in reply in their last five games. If Arsenal’s last five games are anything to go by, you then realise that whoever suggested that the Gunners are favourites needs to go a bit easy on the cool aid.
Arsenal will have been buoyed by the win against Liverpool having come back from a mauling by both their closest rivals. Both the players and supporters will have taken a lot of encouragement from the collective team effort and the defensive display shown against Liverpool.
In tomorrow’s game, that defensive discipline will be the key. Consistency has been elusive for this team at critical times and this has been a source of frustration for many supporters. However, the spirit and sheer determination shown by the team in the game against Liverpool was very encouraging.
Arsenal has left itself vulnerable in the last couple of losses because of over-committing when chasing the game. You always feel that at 0-0, the Gunners are comfortable and can play a patient game. Our Achilles' heel has been the loss of our shape when defending counter attacks against us as a result of the over-commitment in chasing the game.
Against Liverpool, the team showed that they had the maturity to remain compact and hold the game, while being patient for their chance on goal. The same approach will have to be taken against Porto who are in better scoring form than Arsenal are in.
From Wenger’s point of view, the minimum requirement is not to lose the game against Porto, though he will be more happy with Arsenal keeping a clean sheet.
From a tactical point of view, Porto will have watched Arsenal’s recent defeats to Chelsea and Man United and believe that they have the definitive blue print to beat Arsenal. They will look to crowd the midfield and push forward at every available opportunity using the strength of their star man, the Hulk.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I believe Hulk has been suspended from the rest of the domestic season—but he should be eligible to play in the champions league, and probably gagging for the chance to scratch the itch that Arsenal will represent.
From Arsenal’s point of view, Alex Song and Andrey Arshavin’s absence will be a huge miss, though it’s encouraging that they’ll probably be back for the return leg at the Emirates.
My sense is that Arsenal will go with a starting lineup of:
Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy
Denilson, Diaby, Fabregas
Eboue, Bendtner, Nasri
At some point in the game, Rosicky, Walcott, and Eduardo may feature.
I feel that Wenger will go for Eboue because of his penetrative attributes and ability to run at defences to open spaces. Eboue’s presence also provides solidity and strength in the middle of the park.
For Walcott, whatever time he gets will be valuable especially since he is away from home and there’s less pressure from the crowd and from the media. Hopefully, if he gets pitch time, he can enjoy himself and play with a smile.
Denilson will also get a chance to improve his recent form after his return from injury. He’s become scapegoat du jour in recent weeks and he can’t do any worse than get on the pitch and do what he’s good at.
Arsenal have a good chance of getting past Porto to the next round, but it’s not going to be a straight forward task by any measure. The fact that Porto have won the European title twice and the fact that they’ve been in the competition for 12 years running suggests that you should write them off at your own peril.
Zero complacency from Arsenal is paramount.