Pre-Match Report

Champions League: Porto v Arsenal - Preview

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By Richard Clarke in Porto

"I haven't looked at it," said Arsène Wenger bracing himself for bad news. "But I'm sure you'll come out with something interesting."

A journalist at the manager's pre-match press conference had just brought up the thorny issue of Arsenal's away record in the Champions League.

Given the manager's other problems ahead of this evening's game in Porto, it seemed almost cruel to draw attention to a paltry run of two wins in their last eight European excursions.

The manager, as ever, put up a noble defence but even he admits improvement is necessary - and so this evening's Knockout Round first leg tie could not be more opportune.

Wenger is without the spine of his side tonight so they will require some... errr... backbone. Despite the results, he believes they have shown that on the road in recent times and, anyway, his concern is always the bigger picture.

"We'd qualified before we lost at Olympiacos in December and before that we had a draw and a win in the Group," countered the Frenchman.

"Last year we had the draw with Villarreal in the last 16, we lost at Roma but still qualified, and then lost at Manchester United 1-0 - which was not a bad result but a bad performance.

"But I hear that Real Madrid have been knocked out at this stage for the last five years. That's five consecutive years in the last 16. If Arsenal did that, what would happen? So, I think our overall record in the Champions League is not bad."

It is in Portugal though. It is a country in which the Club have never won a Champions League game and they come up against an unheralded Porto team who have outplayed them on two relatively recent trips.

"I remember those last two games," said Wenger. "Last season we were already qualified but the game before in 2006 we needed a draw to get through from the Group and Porto were on top of us.

"I remember they hit the post with 12 minutes to go and, at the same time, news suddenly appeared on the big screen that CSKA Moscow were winning.

"After that, the game calmed down. It was a little bit of a special atmosphere because both teams could then qualify with a draw.

"But we know it is always difficult in Porto. They always have a team who is committed and technically very good. You always respect a team like Porto."

In the circumstances, a draw - particularly a scoring one - would seem acceptable given that Porto's relative strength at their Estadio do Dragao home is matched by weakness away. And of course the second leg at Emirates Stadium is three weeks from now, enough time for Arsenal's injury list to shorten.

Just to clarify, the new absentees are Alex Song (knee), William Gallas (calf), Manuel Almunia (finger) and Andrey Arshavin (hamstring). In addition, it was hoped Eduardo (hamstring) would return but it now seems that, like all those listed here, he will miss tonight's game and the visit of Sunderland at the weekend. Gallas is expected to sit out the trip to Stoke the following weekend aswell.

The manager confirmed that Lukasz Fabianski will deputise between the posts but, on the eve of the game, he had not decided between Sol Campbell and Mikael Silvestre for the vacant berth at centre back.

Frankly, you have to give Porto praise for playing at this level year in, year out. In six of the past seven seasons they have gone past the Group Stages of the Champions League but yet, in the same period, they have sold more than £200 million of talent. In each of the past six summers they have let go of two players, at least, for more than £10 million apiece.

But although Europe's ‘selling club' have maintained their batting average, they have not really come close to repeating their stand-out season - the victory of 2004.

The same could be said of Arsenal, who have been regulars in the last eight but never reprised their appearance in the 2006 Final.

That season a patched up defence, with midfielder Mathieu Flamini at left back, did not concede a goal in the knockout stages until Samuel Eto'o beat Almunia at the near post with 13 minutes to go in the Final. Their progression was based on snatching first leg leads and then defending them with their lives.

Wenger's side don't have to be that bold this evening. This tie can be won back in the bosom of Emirates Stadium. But, at the same time, the manager is painfully aware it can be lost here in Porto this evening. That is why ahead of tonight he invoked a little of the 2006 feeling.

"Yes we need to revive that spirit," he admitted. "We need to dig deep and we know that. You do not go to Porto, who have played 10 consecutive years in the Champions League, and get away with an easy game. We need to be special. We cannot turn up in the last 16 with an average game.

"I think we need to be defensively solid, but not cautious. That means, when you have the ball, you have to play.

"We are in a 50-50 position so the difference will be mental.  And we need to show we can deal with [our injuries].

"I believe we have players who can come in and do well because they have the experience. They've played in Champions League games, so we cannot complain about that.

"That's part of a successful team - to go into big games without your best squad and still come through."

Few trophies are won without a triumph or two in adversity.

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