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Champions League Preview: Arsenal - AZ

By Graham Lister

Wednesday 4 November 2009, Kick-off: 20:45CET (19:45 GMT)
Emirates Stadium, London N5

The game lasts for 93 minutes...

Concentration will be the name of the game when Arsenal welcome AZ  to north London on Wednesday night. Two weeks ago the Gunners were cruising towards a near-unassailable position in Group H in the reverse fixture after Cesc Fabregas had given them a 36th minute lead. But David Mendes da Silva volleyed home a spectacular equaliser in the
third minute of added time - seizing on a knock-down from a free kick awarded when an Arsenal forward was caught offside in the other half of the pitch.

Conceding that goal underlined Arsenal's disinclination to shut up shop and close games out when protecting a narrow lead. The same vulnerability was apparent at the Boleyn Ground a few days later when they established a two-goal lead over West Ham United but failed to build on or hold it, letting slip two goals - from a free kick and a penalty, respectively - in the final 15 minutes.

Such lapses are enough to make a manager tear off his expensively-tailored jacket and hurl it at the bench, and indeed Arsene Wenger has since stressed to his troops the importance of concentrating for the duration. "You know that in the last five minutes of a Champions League match, anything can happen," the Frenchman has observed.

There are encouraging signs that his players have heeded the lesson, because they won their next two games, beating Liverpool 2-1 in the League Cup and arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 in the Premier League, both at the Emirates. Against the Reds, Fran Merida scored his first goal for the club and Nicklas Bendtner grabbed the winner, while the 162nd north London derby was decided by two Arsenal goals inside a minute just before half-time. Bacary Sagna set up Robin van Persie for a near-post finish before Fabregas dispossessed Wilson Palacios in the centre circle and left the Spurs defence floundering in his wake to double the lead eleven seconds after the restart. Van Persie later made it 3-0 from another Sagna cross.

Those two latest results extended the Gunners' unbeaten run to 11 consecutive games, of which nine have been won. Moreover, England's third-placed team and current top scorers (32 goals in 10 League games; 47 in 17 matches overall) are yet to fire a blank this season; AZ are one of only three teams to have restricted them to a single goal in any one match.

Nevertheless, in the group stage of the Champions League it's all about points, and their draw in Alkmaar - following wins at Standard Liege and at home to Olympiakos, leaves Arsenal on seven, one ahead of last season's Greek double-winners and five more than Dutch champions AZ, who lie third.

A to Z: highs and lows


AZ's second point of the group followed a narrow defeat in Piraeus against Olympiakos and a frustrating home draw against Standard Liege. The pattern of the latter game was the mirror image of AZ's first tussle with the Gunners: Mounir El Hamdaoui gave AZ a 48th minute lead, but it was cancelled out by a stoppage-time equaliser from Liege substitute Moussa Traore.

If that left coach Ronald Koeman frustrated, the Dutchman (whose goal won the European Cup for Barcelona in the 1992 final at the old Wembley) will also be somewhat dissatisfied with AZ's domestic form this season. After winning the title last term under Louis van Gaal, who subsequently left for Bayern Munich, AZ have won six and lost six under Koeman, a record that puts them seventh in the 18-team Eredivisie.

Their inconsistency is reflected in recent results: a 3-2 defeat in Enschede against league leaders Twente was followed by a 4-2 home reverse at the hands of Koeman's former club Ajax. Then in the Dutch Cup AZ needed extra-time to dispose of amateur side SV Spakenburg. They eventually triumphed 5-2, 20-year-old Jonathas scoring on his debut, but the win came at a price: AZ will now be without leading scorer Mounir El Hamdaoui for up to four weeks, the 25-year-old striker having torn a muscle in his left leg.

El Hamdaoui had scored six times in nine Eredivisie games and once in the Champions League, and AZ can ill-afford to lose his goal threat: before beating Spakenburg they had managed only seven goals in their previous eight games. On Saturday they picked up three valuable points in a 1-0 away win against Groningen, Jeremain Lens celebrating his 50th appearance for the club by coming off the substitutes' bench in the 80th minute to head the winning goal five minutes later.

Wenger's landmarks, Koeman's record

It has been an autumn of milestones for Wenger so far, though Koeman will be determined to prevent Le Professeur from reaching another landmark: his first win against the Dutchman.

A month ago, Wenger became Arsenal's longest serving manager, celebrating 13 years in charge and eclipsing the previous record tenure of 4,748 days set by George Allison between 1934 and 1947. Two weeks ago he turned 60, and Arsenal's win over Liverpool was his 750th game as Arsenal boss. Then on Saturday, victory over Spurs earned him his 1000th Premier League point.

However, Koeman has proved something of a jinx for the Frenchman. He remains unbeaten as a coach against Arsenal, guiding Ajax to 1-1 home and 0-0 away draws against Wenger's side in the Champions League second group stage in February 2003, then as PSV Eindhoven's going one better, eliminating the Gunners in the 2006-07 first knockout round with a 1-0 home win followed by a 1-1 draw in London. So perhaps AZ's last-gasp equaliser at the DSB Stadium was not such a surprise.

Nor do Arsenal have the best of home records against Dutch opposition. In seven competitive home games against visitors from Holland, the Gunners have only managed two victories, drawing four times and losing the other game - a 1971-72 European up quarter-final against Ajax. On the other hand, AZ have lost all of their four previous games in England, conceding 12 goals along the way. Their most recent game on English soil ended in a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Newcastle United FC in a 2006-07 UEFA Cup round of 16 tie.
 
FORM GUIDE

Arsenal


31 Oct (Premier League) v Tottenham Hotspur (H) WON 3-0
28 Oct (League Cup) v Liverpool (H) WON 2-1
25 Oct (Premier League) v West Ham United (A) DREW 2-2
20 Oct (Champions League) v AZ Alkmaar (A) DREW 1-1
17 Oct (Premier League) v Birmingham City (H) WON 3-1
04 Oct (Premier League) v Blackburn Rovers (H) WON 6-2

AZ


31 Oct (Eredivisie) v Groningen (A) WON 1-0
28 Oct (Dutch Cup) v Spakenburg (H) WON 5-2 (aet)
25 Oct (Eredivisie) v Ajax (H) LOST 2-4
20 Oct (Champions League) v Arsenal (H) DREW 1-1
17 Oct (Eredivisie) v Twente (A) LOST 2-3
03 Oct (Eredivisie) v Breda (H) WON 1-0

TEAM NEWS

Arsenal


Wenger's injury problems show no sign of abating, French left-back Gael Clichy being ruled out for several  weeks with a stress fracture of the back. Clichy missed the last two months of last season with a back injury; Brazilian midfielder Denilson has been sidelined since mid-September with a similar problem and is unlikely to return before the end of November.

Nicklas Bendtner limped off shortly before half-time against Spurs at the weekend, Wenger diagnosing a serious groin injury that could keep the Dane out for up to four weeks.

Meanwhile Johan Djourou is a long-term casualty, recovering from knee surgery, and Theo Walcott is out with a knee problem of his own. Lukasz Fabianski (thigh) is unavailable, while Jack Wilshere (ankle) and Carlos Vela (knee) have been sidelined recently.

On the positive side, Tomas Rosicky is back in the squad after knee trouble, though he is not expected to start against AZ. England prospect Kieran Gibbs will replace Clichy, with Armand Traore providing cover in that position.  

Last starting XI (v Tottenham): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Fabregas, Song, Diaby; Bendtner (Eduardo 37), Van Persie (Ramsey 86), Arshavin (Eboue 78).

Starting XI v AZ on Matchday 3: Mannone, Diaby, Sagna, Fabregas, Vermaelen, Gallas, Van Persie (Vela 74), Song, Clichy, Arshavin, Eboue (Ramsey 83).

AZ

Mounir El Hamdaoui misses this week's trip to London with a muscle tear and is also doubtful for the home game against Olympiakos on 24 November, though he should be fit again for AZ's final Group H match away to Standard Liege on 9 December.

However, Koeman should otherwise have a full squad from which to select.

Last starting XI (v Groningen):
Romero; Swerts, Moisander, Moreno, Poulsen; Holman (Klavan 87), Mendes da Silva, Schaars, Martens (Wernbloom 77); Dembele, Pelle (Lens 80).

Starting XI v Arsenal on Matchday 3: Romero, Jaliens, Moreno, Mendes da Silva, Schaars, El Hamdaoui, Martens (Lens 69), S. Poulsen, Dembele, Moisander (Wernbloom 84), Holman (Pelle 73).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Arsenal

Robin van Persie
will relish playing against a side from his homeland - some of whom are Holland international team-mates - and the Arsenal striker is in scintillating form at the moment. His brace against Spurs on Saturday took his tally to eight goals so far this season, complemented by seven assists - underlining that he is enjoying his role as Arsenal's lead striker following the departure of Emmanuel Adebayor. Van Persie was recently described by Wenger as combining attributes of a target man and a support striker, with some of the qualities of Thierry Henry and compatriot Dennis Bergkamp about his play. He moved on to 71 Arsenal goals in total at the weekend, putting him joint 27th on the club's all-time leading scorers list.   

AZ

David Mendes da Silva
stunned Arsenal in the reverse fixture, volleying home mere seconds from the final whistle when skipper Stijn Schaars launched a free kick into the Londoners' penalty area for substitute Graziano Pelle - who had impressed with some lively play after coming on in the 73rd minute - to nod the ball down. Mendes da Silva showed lightning reflexes, reacting first to take full advantage and salvage a point that had looked beyond his team for much of the contest. In the absence of leading scorer El Hamdaoui, the likes of Pelle and Mendes da Silva will need to be equally sharp at the Emirates.
 
PREDICTION


Despite their heroic salvage operation in Alkmaar, financially-stricken AZ will have their hands full attempting to contain an Arsenal side who have been rampant on home turf. But Koeman is a wily tactician, especially when pitting his wits against Wenger, so the Gunners can certainly take nothing for granted. The Premier League outfit will be keen to make up for their late lapse in Holland, and even keener to wrap up qualification for the knockout stage as soon as possible - preferably as winners of Group H. It would be a serious blow were they not to collect three points on Wednesday, and AZ - who have won only two of their last 11 matches in all competitions over 90 minutes, losing six - may well find the task of containing the Gunners beyond them.

Arsenal 3-1 AZ