By Richard Clarke
You would think a side with just one win in their last six Premier League and Champions League games would settle for any sort of victory against Dynamo Kyiv tonight.
But then Arsenal have not had a normal week.
Having lost so tamely against Aston Villa, Arsène Wenger wanted his under-fire, injury-ravaged squad to find instant redemption at Manchester City on Saturday. In the end matters only got worse.
Less than an hour after Wenger had finished his pre-match media work on the Thursday, reported remarks by William Gallas had floated across The Channel. As a result, the captain was left out of the squad for the game at Eastlands.
Already shorn of eight players, Arsenal could not handle the loss of their most experienced head. They lost 3-0 and two days later Gallas lost the captaincy aswell.
The Frenchman will figure against Dynamo Kyiv this evening but, for the first time, he’ll be behind Cesc Fabregas as the teams emerge from the tunnel.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Wenger’s decision to give the Spaniard the armband, his thoughts have been clear and his action swift.
Now his players must prove he has called it correctly. They must win and win well. As ever, the manager is supremely confident.
“I think this Club can become one of the important forces in Europe for many years,” said Wenger. “But first we have to convince the people here in England. There is only one way to do that and it is by not talking much and going out and playing well.
“We can qualify from the Champions League group tonight and that is what we want. From then on we have a massive game against Chelsea on Sunday. We know that to have a chance in the title race, we must beat all the direct opponents. If we can do that we still have a good opportunity.”
For now, the Premier League is Sunday’s problem. Tuesday could be complicated enough.
A win will definitely put Arsenal through to the Champions League Knockout stages. If Porto fail to beat Fenerbahce, Wenger’s men would be guaranteed top spot in Group G.
A draw should be enough as the Ukrainians would have to overturn a seven-goal deficit on Matchday Six to go above Arsenal in the final reckoning. However a 0-0 is not sufficient on its own as Group G could still see three teams level at the top on nine points.
Given all that, the return of Fabregas and Gallas to the side is most welcome. But Samir Nasri (knee) and Abou Diaby (abdominal) are out after picking up knocks in training on Monday. They join Kolo Toure (calf), Theo Walcott (shoulder), Emmanuel Eboue (knee), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), Bacary Sagna (ankle), Emmanuel Adebayor (ankle) and Eduardo (ankle) on the sidelines.
With those nine experienced players out, Wenger’s starting XI should be familiar enough but his bench will be pure, unadulterated Carling Cup.
Ironically it was a Gallas goal that stopped Arsenal falling to defeat at Kyiv on Matchday One. Since then the Londoners have always done enough to just about retain control of Group G, while Yuri Semin’s side have relied on away performances for the bulk of their points.
“Dynamo Kyiv made a good impression in that first game when we played over there,” said Wenger. “It was a game in which they defended every part of the pitch in a very determined way. They played on the counterattack with Ismael Bangoura and Olexandr Aliyev, a playmaker who is a very good passer of the ball, while physically they look very strong too.
“They confirmed that performance with their away results but they lost at home to Porto. I feel if they had won that game they would be nearly qualified already.”
As it is, Kyiv will be out of the Champions League if they lose this evening.
No doubt tonight will be all about Fabregas, the armband and Arsenal’s response to their recent troubles.
The London side need to show a united front and put in a Manchester United-like performance. Against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side they were fluid, committed and ruthless. It has been the highlight of the season so far.
Around 70 per cent of that performance might be enough to take care of Kyiv. However they need to show 100 per cent of their team spirit.
At his pre-match press conference, it was put to Wenger that this was the “ideal game” in which to start the re-building process.
It was an understandable yet, at the same time, odd notion given that reaching the Champions League Knockout Stages was one of the most important targets of Wenger’s season.
“There is no ideal game,” he replied. “The ideal game is to demonstrate the ideal way to deal with our situation. That is to play well, show that we have a united attitude plus the ability and the strength to deal with it.”
So, in short, it is a night of signs as well as scorelines.
Winning well this evening could start a new chapter in Arsenal’s season and they will be looking to their new captain to turn the first page.
|2. FC Porto||4||2||0||2||5||7||6|
|3. FC Dynamo Kyiv||4||1||2||1||3||3||5|