By Richard Clarke
Arsenal must dig-in at Braga on Tuesday night.
This is a tough moment for Arsene Wenger. The record-ending 3-2 defeat to Tottenham on Saturday will not be erased by victory – and qualification to the Knockout Stages of the Champions League – in Portugal this evening. But the manager is well beyond the navel-gazing stage.
He knows the mentality of his side is under scrutiny after shipping three goals in the second-half of Saturday. Hence the unusual surroundings of Braga’s AXA Stadium – a former quarry with a sheer rock face at one end and a grass bank at the other – is kind of apt.
However the Frenchman is not prepared to go overboard.
"Is this game important?" he asked himself. "Of course. We need to bounce back as quickly as possible.
"We don't deny what happened on Saturday in terms of facts. We could not take our chance to go top.
"But if you look overall at our position, we are third, two points behind the leaders. Also we are top of our Champions League Group, we are in the Quarter Final of the Carling Cup and we haven't started the FA Cup. So the season will be what we make of it.
"Even if we have regrets about not doing much better, maybe Chelsea and Manchester United can feel the same."
The 2-1 defeat at Shakhtar three weeks ago, like to loss to Tottenham on Saturday, did not influence Arsenal's ability to finish on top of the relevant table that much.
Victory at Braga on Tuesday and then at home to bottom-side Partizan Belgrade will see them through to the Knockout Stage as winners of Group H. That is not always significant but Wenger argues it will be this season.
"Of course we want to qualify and be top," he said. "But the priority is to qualify.
"I am convinced as well it is important to win the game this time because it gives us a good opportunity to finish in a very strong position. That is what our target has to be. We are a very ambitious team and you cannot say we want to finish second.
"When you look at the teams that are top in the other groups it's better to be there this year. We wasted a good opportunity at Shakhtar Donetsk and we have to make sure that is not repeated."
As in Ukraine, Arsenal travelled to the oldest city in Portugal with a few omissions from their regular squad. Gael Clichy has a back problem, Andrey Arshavin is rested entirely and Robin van Persie has been left in London to work on his fitness.
Wenger intimated Marouane Chamakh may be a substitute on Tuesday to give him a breather. The manager was going to make a late call on captain Cesc Fabregas, who is still feeling his hamstring injury.
Braga were battered 6-0 at Emirates Stadium on the opening night of Group H - their first experience of the Champions League proper.
They ‘doubled' Partizan Belgrade in their last two games to retain a chance of making the Knockout Stages but their form in the Portuguese League is distinctly average. They have lost their last three games and have dipped below halfway in the table.
Still, like Shakhtar, there is strength at home. Under coach Domingos Paciencia they have won 18 out of 20 games at a ground the locals still call "The Quarry".
"In the first match against Braga, everything went for us and we had a very good game," said Wenger. "Now we have to forget that because it was a big score under a bit special circumstances.
"We feel it will be a completely new game but we have played in every difficult place in Europe and we know, if we turn up with a good performance, we have a chance to win anywhere. That is how we will approach the game.
"We will not feel any superiority. We know that to win any away game in the Champions League you need to turn up.
"Paciencia has done an exceptional job to get a club of this size into the Champions League and we have to give him credit for that.
"We come here to qualify but Braga are a good team. The two top teams in the Group are in a strong position and we have the final game at home so we certainly feel we are in a strong position but it is not over for them."
Likewise it is nothing near over for Arsenal this season. It is a campaign in which all the major sides have continually taken two paces forward and one back.
OK, for many Saturday was more than that. It was the end of an era.
A bubble had burst but, it should be remembered, that it was Wenger who inflated it in the first place. Those of us who sank a few sullen pints on Saturday night should also raise glass to the past 17 years in which results like that did just not occur.
Funnily enough, the last time Arsenal lost back-to-back Premier League games at home was December, 1997. The second of those was a 3-1 defeat to Blackburn - an angry, finger-pointing affair that, history showed, galvanised the first great Wenger side. At Christmas that year, Arsenal were 13 points behind leaders Manchester United but they did not lose another game until they had lifted the Premier League trophy.
That was not so much a hole and deep-cast mine but Arsenal clambered their way out.
On Tuesday at Braga, Wenger's side must dig-in like they did at Everton and Wolves just last week.
Reaching the Knockout Stages of the Champions League for the 11th straight season is worth a little pat on the back.
It is box ticked in a season that, despite Saturday, can still go a long way.
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