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Barcelona v Arsenal: Injury-ravaged Arsenal look to Walcott for inspiration

Arsenal BarcelonaBy Jonny Payne

Arsenal face a colossal task tonight when they take on reigning Champions League winners Barcelona in the second leg of their quarter-final, knowing only a win – or a high-scoring draw – will do if they are to progress to the semi-final for the second successive year.

If it was already a difficult task, Arsenal’s odds have been lengthened dramatically with the squad ravaged with injuries – they are well and truly down to the bare bones.

With captain Cesc Fabregas, and key players Andrey Arshavin, William Gallas and Robin van Persie already out, Alex Song has now been ruled out with a knee injury, while Sol Campbell is struggling to be fit and Tomas Rosicky is rated as 50:50 with a calf injury caused by Wolves’ Karl Henry’s crunching tackle at the weekend.

Speaking of Song’s injury on Arsenal’s official website yesterday, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said:

“It was a bad surprise because he had a scan yesterday [Sunday] afternoon on his knee and he has an inflamed cartilage.

“We have to wait and see how bad it is but he is completely out for the squad for tomorrow’s game.”

Whether Campbell plays will be determined nearer kick-off with Wenger hinting that the veteran will have to prove full fitness before he is even considered:

“That is a decision I have to make after speaking to him tomorrow,” the Arsenal manager said. “Today he was still not completely available although he managed to get a warm-up. To go into such a game you must be completely fit or not play at all.”

Speaking on Sunday before Song’s injury became fully apparent, Wenger had said:

“The problem we have at the moment is that we are short,” he said. “We rested Abou DIaby, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and Nicklas Bendtner [against Wolves].

“We have Cesc Fabregas, William Gallas, Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin out. Can you believe that? That’s eight players. Any injury now can hit us very hard.”

The Arsenal manager obviously spoke too soon.

Barcelona are not without their own problems, however, but with the majority of their players available, there is sufficient cover for the absentees. Both first-choice centre-backs will be unavailable for the holders, with Carles Puyol serving a one-match ban for his red card in the first leg, and former Manchester United man Gerard Pique also out after picking up his third yellow card of the competition last week.

Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez will fill-in, both experienced internationals in their own right. With such cover Wenger believes it will not make too much of a difference to the World Club Champions.

“I don’t think they have any reason to speculate on any weakness when you look at the opportunities and possibilities they have to get over the suspensions,” he said.

“They have plenty of opportunities, plenty of centre-backs still available. I believe it is more important to focus on our side and how well we want to play,” he said.

Barca’s two-goal hero from the first leg, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, will also be unavailable after injuring his calf during the warm-up before the match against Athletic Bilbao at the weekend, while Andres Iniesta is also struggling to regain fitness after also missing the first leg with a hamstring complaint.

Bojan Krkic, who replaced the Swede in the starting line-up, could again be preferred to Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, after scoring two goals against Athletic Bilbao and impressing in the lone striking role. Wenger believes the young Spaniard will keep Henry out of the starting line-up but suggests his former protégé could play some part.

It can happen,” the Frenchman said. “But it doesn’t look at the moment that they go for this solution because in their last game they played Bojan so I am not completely sure they will go for Thierry. But it could happen that he plays against us tomorrow night. You could have Campbell v Henry again – that I have seen so many times in training sessions.”

Barcelona were totally dominant in the first 70 minutes of a pulsating match at the Emirates last Wednesday, but Arsenal hit back in the last quarter scoring two goals to go into the second leg on level terms.

Arsenal will need to win or draw 3-3 or more if they are to progress, while a 2-2 draw after 90 minutes will send the tie into extra time. It is an uphill task, but not impossible and Wenger insists that his young team still has a good chance of making it to the last four.

“I think it is more balanced than the impression people have,” he said. 

”If you look at the game again, we analysed it very well. Many times they gave us big problems in the first part of the game but if you look at the number of chances we created through the whole game it is quite interesting.

“Wenger added: “I am confident despite the injuries we have that we can do it. Of course we will need to get everybody 100 per cent of his potential tomorrow night and certainly have a great team performance. But this team has such mental strengths and I believe they can fight against the odds anywhere in the world and I am confident they will do it tomorrow.

The Arsenal manager continued: “We have not only to defend against them but use the ball better than we did in the first half. There are some ideas we have to exploit. They anticipate a lot in their pressing and they did it exceptionally well. That’s why after an hour it got a bit easier against them. 
We don’t choose to be patient but they said that’s the best half they played for a long, long time. They are not necessarily going to do it every single game.”

One of the avenues to exploit is on Barcelona’s left. Theo Walcott caused havoc after coming on in the first leg, scoring the first and playing a large part in the second. Brazilian left-back Maxwell struggled to keep up with the pacey England international.

Walcott was noticeably confident after the match and the 21 year-old will be looking for a repeat performance personally.

“As a winger, an attacking player, you always have to be on the front foot. Hopefully I can get at them and will give them a problem. However, it is not just me, we have got ten other players out there, but if I can create space for some of the others, then that is all part of my job.

“It is a nice thing to have people saying good things [about me] – I just have to do it on the pitch.”

If Arsenal are to spring a shock tonight, then Samir Nasri will also play a key role. The 22 year-old will have the unenviable task of replacing Cesc Fabregas in the playmaking role for the Gunners.

The former Marseille player is at his most confident in this position, however, and has impressed when he has played there this season. Wenger has singled out his fellow countryman as the player to lead the team in Fabregas’ absence.

“He will of course be important because he will lead our game,” said Wenger. “I would love Cesc to be there 100 per cent. But we have no choice, we have to compensate a little bit. 
”I have to find a good balance in the side to make life difficult for Barcelona. But of course Nasri is one of the players who can create.”

If the Gunners can somehow overcome arguably the best team in Europe with countless injuries, a semi-final with either Inter Milan or CSKA Moscow awaits. Then, and only then, will Arsenal players and fans believe they can go all the way.

Possible Team:


Sagna               Campbell           Vermaelen               Clichy


Diaby                       Nasri

Walcott                                                              Eboue


Subs: Fabianski, Eduardo, Rosicky, Merida, Eastmond, Traore, Silvestre

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