Pre-Match Report

Champions League: Arsenal v Braga - Preview

Emirates Stadium

By Richard Clarke

It says a lot about Arsenal's European expectations that Arsène Wenger was asked as much about Barcelona as Braga ahead of his side's Champions League opener.

While the Portuguese side are the opponents at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday, the spectre of the Spanish champions still looms large.

Last season's Quarter-Final with Barcelona was utterly bizarre. Arsenal were surgically dissected in the opening 45 minutes of the first leg in London but, thanks largely to Manuel Almunia, the score remained goalless. They conceded twice in a more even second period before Theo Walcott inspired a remarkable comeback to draw 2-2.

In the return, they took an early lead and had a couple more clear chances before Lionel Messi's hat-trick concluded the argument in emphatic fashion.

"I think the gap was big in the first game," admitted Wenger at Tuesday's press conference. "But it was not big in the second game.

"The result was big, yes. However I am convinced the result in the first game, the 2-2, was flattering [to us] but it was very, very hard on us in the second game because, although we made defensive mistakes, we had opportunities as well to be 2-0 up.

"We can show we have improved in that area this year and sometimes you can reduce the gap between the teams very quickly.

"But at the moment we don't play Barcelona. Let's first try to beat Braga."

The concentration on the Catalans is diverting and yet understandable. The Group Stage has held no real demons for Arsenal since the turn of the Millennium. They are bidding to reach the last 16 for the 11th season in succession - an overlooked statistic. In addition they have not lost at home to foreign opposition since the 3-0 reverse to Inter in 2003 - 37 games ago.

Despite that, Wenger has been banging the drum against complacency ever since Arsenal's seemingly-favourable draw was made late last month. His side possess almost all the European pedigree in Group H but Wenger is wary of hidden dangers.

"It is the price we pay for being in the competition for a long time," he said. "If we are intelligent, which I think we are, we have learned that you have to turn up [mentally] to win any game in the Champions League or you just don't win it.

"I believe we are in a very tricky group because Shakthar Donestk are a good team and Braga are a good team. Partizan, we do not know very much about, but we do know it is important we win our home games."

The damage that Abou Diaby's ankle received against Bolton on Saturday has not been fully ascertained but we do know he will be absent for a minimum of two games. Meanwhile Thomas Vermaelen is still out with an Achilles injury picked up on international duty.

Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie both have ankle problems that will sideline them until mid October at least. Nicklas Bendtner (groin) and Aaron Ramsey (leg) are still out. Johan Djourou played 90 minutes for the Reserves on Tuesday so Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci should continue their partnership at centre back. Marouane Chamakh is expected to spearhead the attack.

It is not lost on Wenger that he is relying heavily on his three summer signings right now. In the past the manager has given his new players the leeway of adaptation. There can be no such luxury at the moment.

"Yes it's a big test for them," he said. "We can't afford [any adaptation period]. But Squillaci is 30 years-old and Chamakh has already shown what an important player he can be for us. He's scores important goals. He doesn't score the 4-1 goal, he scores the 2-1 goal or the 1-1 equaliser in most of his games.

"Koscielny's the only one who's had no time to think about the adaptation - he just has to play. But until now I believe he's doing well."

Wenger placed a bid for Squillaci on the day his Sevilla side played at Braga in the first leg of the Champions League fourth-round qualifier.

They would beat the Spaniards home and away with striker Lima, one of a host of Brazilians in their squad, netting a hat-trick in the second leg. This is their first Champions League experience and their first competitive game against Arsenal.

However, there is some famous familiarity in their club colours, which were copied from the North London side when a former coach visited Highbury in the 1920s.

"Braga are physically strong and well-organised," said Wenger. "They are a team that plays with a very quick transition from defence to attack.

"What impresses me is that we played Porto last year, and they finished in front of them [in the league]. Also they knocked Sevilla out in the qualifying round - that helps us to be on our toes.

"For us the confidence is high at the moment. But we have to show we can focus every three or four days now and keep our flow going.

"We know we can score goals so let's keep doing that too. But on Wednesday we play a tricky game because we are favourites.

"Braga are an outsider, but an outsider who are dangerous on the counterattack and from long range shots.

"Of course, we want to exploit [their Champions League inexperience]. We are used to the competition and people expect us to go through because we have gone through the group stage for ten consecutive years.

"We have had to deal with being favourites in many Champions League games."

Arsenal must expect to be in that pressurised position for each of their six Group H games this season.

It simply goes with the territory these days.

Pos. Team P W D L F A Pts
1. Arsenal 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2. Braga 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
3. Partizan Belgrade 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
4. Shakhtar Donetsk 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
See Full List

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