Arsenal turn to Champions League, and Porto will be no pushover
PUBLISHED: 15:52 11 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:45 07 September 2010
How much would under-fire Arsene Wenger welcome a first ever win in Portugal when his team travels to Oporto on Wednesday night? Various Arsenal sides, under Bertie Mee, George Graham and, latterly, the Frenchman, have tried and failed to win at Sporting
How much would under-fire Arsene Wenger welcome a first ever win in Portugal when his team travels to Oporto on Wednesday night?
Various Arsenal sides, under Bertie Mee, George Graham and, latterly, the Frenchman, have tried and failed to win at Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and twice at Porto, with the Gunners drawing three and losing one.
So a win, on so many levels, would help lift the gloom that has enveloped Emirates Stadium in the past week, regardless of last night's result with Liverpool.
While the wait for the Premier League title looks increasingly likely to continue for one more season at least, despite Wenger's weak protestations, he strongly maintains his squad has what it takes to win European football's biggest prize - starting with overcoming Porto.
"Difficult but feasible" is the Arsenal manager's assessment of the challenge.
Porto, despite winning the Champions League as recently as 2004 under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, are clearly seen as one of the easier opponents in the Last 16.
Paul Merson, for example, said this week he has no doubt Arsenal have what it takes to win the tie.
"We'll beat Porto, don't you worry about that, the Portuguese league ain't up to much - we'll be too good for them," was his confident prediction, reflecting the mood of the fans after the draw was made in December.
Porto, however, have a formidable home record, going 11 unbeaten against English opponents before Manchester United won 1-0 last season and then Chelsea achieved the same scoreline earlier this campaign.
Porto's 2-0 win over a youthful Arsenal in December 2008, after the Gunners had confirmed their qualification to the knockout stages, remains one of the worst European performances on the road.
"We were second best and not strong enough," Wenger moaned on the night after fielding the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Mark Randall and Jack Wilshere. "Once we went behind we could not get back."
Arsenal, however, had already shown they were more than a match for the Portuguese when they blew them away 4-0 in their first Group G meeting at the Emirates earlier in the campaign, thanks to two goals apiece from Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor.
But this time around, Porto are in bullish mood.
Former goalkeeper Vítor Baía, a club legend who is now a director at the club, clearly fancies his team to reach the quarter finals: "We have great confidence going through to the next stage," he declared.
"We already know Arsenal from last season when we did a good job, finishing the group stage as section winners despite a bad result in England.
"However, it will be different this time around as it is a knockout tie and not a group-stage pairing. It may have a different feel."
They have also strengthened since the turn of the year with the signing of the exciting Portuguese midfielder Rúben Micael on a four-and-a-half-year contract from CD Nacional, a player who was hugely sought after in his homeland prior to moving to the Dragons.
Domestically, third-placed Porto are poised for a straight battle with Benfica and Braga - the two sides currently above them in the table - in a fight for the Primiera Liga title they won last year for the fourth successive time and 24th time overall.
Jesualdo Ferreira - at the helm for the last three titles successes and a man openly despised by his predecessor, Mourinho - is bidding to become the first manager to win four on the trot and tipped his side to become even stronger in 2010.
"We are confident because we are scoring more goals and becoming far more efficient - our strikers are taking their chances when they come," he said last week.
They will expect maximum points when they travel to second bottom Leixoes this weekend ahead of their clash with Arsenal.
While the English media has chosen to concentrate on the wonderfully-named Hulk, who made his Brazil debut in November, Wenger will have noted two other attackers who are making a big impact this term.
Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, a former journalism student now making the headlines with his goals, is currently flavour of the month with 20 goals this season in all competitions.
The pacy attacker named after 1980s Brazil legend Paulo Falcao has become a fans' favourite after replacing the departing Lisandro Lopez in the summer.
There is also the homegrown threat of Silvestre Varela, who has netted eight times in just 13 starts this season and is tipped to break into the full Portugal side after earning 26 Under-21 caps.
"He is improving and already way past his previous best," says his manager.
Wenger will be boosted by the return of Eduardo from a hamstring injury - and has called on his side to grab a valuable away goal.
"It is a 50/50 game," he said. "Porto are always in there and always difficult to play against.
"The little advantage is that we have the second game at home but it's important that we negotiate well our first game and try to score away from home. I admit it's a difficult draw.
"Last season we had a very good game at home and away we lost 2-0. But it's the Champions League, it's a cup game now, it's the form of the day and I believe it's feasible.