By Richard Clarke
Emirates Stadium may witness its first great European night this evening.
It was highly fitting that Arsenal chose the last year of their Highbury tenure to reach the Champions League Final. During that run to Paris, they fashioned out crucial first leg leads at home to Juventus and Villarreal while their preservation of a narrow 1-0 advantage from the Bernabeu gave us arguably the greatest goalless draw in the history of the Club.
Going back further, just the names Sampdoria, Juventus, Torino, PSG, Ajax and Anderlecht may moisten the eye of the older fan.
Of course, Arsenal’s ‘new’ ground has created some European memories already. But with a tip of the hat to Slavia Prague 7-0, Milan 0-0 and Villarreal 3-0 it is yet to invoke genuine two-legged tension.
That may change tonight.
Porto arrive with a 2-1 advantage from that controversial Knockout Round first leg on February 17. It is already a well-worn stat but Arsenal have not turned around a first leg deficit in Europe since November 1 1978 when Willie Young’s header gave Terry Neill’s team safe passage past Hadjuk Split thanks to the away goals rule.
Under Wenger at Emirates, Arsenal have already failed twice in such circumstances – PSV in 2007 and Manchester United in 2009. However, on both occasions, the manager believes they lack one crucial commodity.
“Having the away goal is massive,” he said. “When you don’t have it you think that if we concede we are nearly dead.
“It takes away the drive to go forward and you play a little bit with the handbrake.
“But we are very young, in a very strong position and we want to win. A 1-0 would have been a terrible result [in the first leg]. It’s completely different now. But at the same time we know it’s a tricky game.
"I think we lost that PSV game unluckily but the difference is we have scored this time. When you lose 1-0 away from home it is a difficult game because when you start the next game you know it is almost over because you have to score two or three goals to qualify. This time it is different. If we score one and do not concede then we will qualify.”
All of a sudden, Sol Campbell seems to be very important to Arsenal. It was the centre back who scored that header at Estadio do Dragao three weeks ago and this evening he is likely to come back into the side to plug the gap created by the continuing absence of William Gallas.
Alex Song returns even though he is in the middle of a two-game domestic ban. But, crucially, Cesc Fabregas is missing after suffering a recurrence of his hamstring injury during the 3-1 win over Burnley on Saturday.
Andrey Arshavin featured in that game having been out for a month with a similar injury. However despite scoring, his role was a substitute’s cameo and, on the eve of the game, Wenger was unsure about starting the Russian.
“I will have to assess that,” he said at Monday’s press conference. “I will have to analyse that with the medical staff, what they think about him.
“I have to find a balance in the team, to be offensively strong without neglecting our defensive side. And I have to think about players that, if they start, will last the whole game. He is certainly a player who will not last 90 minutes if he starts. But I will decide on all that tonight or on the morning of the game.”
Wenger accepts Arsenal are going into this season-shaping encounter without their backbone – three key players around which they base their game.
“It is true that at the start of the season you would want Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Gallas to be the spine of the team,” he admitted. “Without them we can show that we are still strong enough to do it. It will be amazing if we get through.”
That leaves responsibility on the shoulders of young players like Nicklas Bendtner, who at 22-years-old, has been leading the attack since the end of January. The Dane is famed for his confidence but tonight will be a test given the chances he spurned against Burnley on Saturday. As heartening as his attitude and work-rate was, Porto will not allow such profligacy.
“No, you cannot fault Nicklas on his confidence,” smiled Wenger. “But also he is one who can take remarks and critics and analyse it without being offended. So people take a lot the negative side of his confidence but he has as well a positive side. He can face his problems and analyse it and change his behaviour. He has not fooled himself. He knows that he could have scored.”
Porto have been patchy since the first leg. They thrashed second-place Braga 5-1 but then lost to Sporting Lisbon 3-0 and only salvaged 2-2 draw at lowly Olhanense thanks to a goal deep into injury time.
Porto have been well beaten on recent trips to Emirates Stadium but Jesualdo Ferreira has promised to attack. Hulk and Falcao gave Arsenal plenty of problems in Portugal plus, as Wenger knows, this game is another form of football.
"They are a different side at home but they come to us with a chance to qualify so I don’t know how they will behave in those circumstances,” said the manager. “In the group stage they are certainly a different side home and away.
“There was room to do better in the first game but the result is positive enough for us to change the tie.
“We have the feeling that we can do it,” Wenger concluded. “It is a very big game but I am convinced that we can. We just have to focus completely on what we want to achieve.”
“We have a good chance to change a little history with this game.”Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source