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Champions League Preview: Porto - Arsenal

Kick Off: Wednesday, February 17, 2010. 20:45 CET
Estadio do Dragao, Porto


Shrewd Operators

European champions in 2003-04 under Jose Mourinho, Porto are again on the march in the continent’s elite competition. This side perhaps does not have the pomp that the squad of six years ago boasted – they are lying third in the Portuguese league, trailing leaders Benfica by seven points with a game in hand – but they are nevertheless dangerous opponents.

Drawn in a group that contained Chelsea, much fancied Atletico Madrid, and APOEL, the Dragoes qualified with consummate ease, admittedly aided by the sheer incompetence that their Spanish rivals showed. There can be little doubt that the ability last 16 opponents Arsenal will severely test the Dragoes.

Porto come into this game with some confidence. Recent results in their domestic league have generally been good, with three wins and a draw since the turn of the year. Additionally, a 4-0 win over Nacional and a 3-0 triumph over Naval in their last two outings will only have served to build the confidence of Jesualdo Ferreira’s side.

That they are performing so well this season is something of a miracle in itself. Headline names Lisandro Lopez and Lucho Gonzalez were sold respectively for giant fees in the summer to French clubs Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique de Marseille, while rising star Aly Cisskho also departed for OL.

In total, Porto made a surplus of almost €50 million in the summer transfer market – a remarkable figure – and on Wednesday night will tackle another club known for their shrewd operations when it comes to importing players.

Wary


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, to his immense credit, continues to try to reconcile the virtues of style and success. The Frenchman continues to blank out critics, sticking rigidly to his belief that his side’s brand of flowing football will one day yield the trophies that the undoubted artistry of the team deserves.

The Champions League is now looking their most fertile battleground this season. Eliminated from both the FA Cup and the League Cup, the Gunners have endured some damaging results in the Premier League of late. Both Chelsea and Manchester United, juggernauts in their own right, preyed on the Gunners’ susceptibility to counterattacks and weakness at set-plays, recording 2-0 and 3-1 victories over the north London club respectively.

Trailing Premier League leaders Chelsea by six points is by no means a disaster, especially as Wenger’s troops no longer need to tackle any of the ‘Big Four’ after a cathartic 1-0 win over Liverpool last Wednesday.

Indeed, that was the last time Arsenal turned out in a competitive fixture. Their elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of Stoke City provided them with the silver-lining of a weekend at rest before a difficult trip to Porto.

On the continent, the Emirates club have endured some uneasy evenings. Victory over Celtic in the play-off round to reach the group stage came on British soil, while their other win, a 3-2 victory over Standard Liege, came only after a disastrous start to the game. Since winning in Belgium, the Gunners have picked up a point in Alkmaar against AZ but lost 1-0 against Olympiacos, a result that should be considered almost a footnote to their group stage campaign due to its meaninglessness for the English side.

There will certainly be no counting of chickens regarding Wednesday evening’s game, which promises to be an engrossing watch.

FORM GUIDE

Porto


WON 3-0 (h) Naval (Liga, February 7)

WON 5-2 (h) Sporting CP (Taca da Portugal, February 2)

WON 4-0 (a) National (Liga, January 31)

DREW 2-2* (a) Belenenses (Taca da Portugal, January 20) *won 10-9 on pens

DREW 1-1 (h) Pacos Ferreira (Liga, January 16)

Arsenal


WON 1-0 (h) Liverpool (Premier League, February 10)

LOST 2-0 (a) Chelsea (Premier League, February 6)

LOST 3-1 (h) Manchester United (Premier League, January 31)

DREW 0-0 (a) Aston Villa (Premier League, January 27)

LOST 3-1 (a) Stoke City (FA Cup, January 24)

TEAM NEWS

Porto


The big news for the hosts is the return to action of Hulk, who has been sidelined for several weeks. In addition Raul Meireles has been given the all-clear to play.

However, it is not all good news for the Dragoes. Diego Valeri, Ernesto Farias and Orlando Sa are all out, but the biggest absentee is Cristian Rodriguez,

Probable Starting XI:
Helton; Fucile, Bruno Alves, Rolando, Pereira; Belluschi, Fernando, Raul Meireles; Hulk, Falcao, Mariano

Arsenal

The Gunners have a number of concerns for the trip to Portugal. Most obviously Robin van Persie is missing but could return before the end of the campaign. Johan Djourou and Kieran Gibbs are the other long-term absentees. Carlos Vela has also been missing of late.

Andrey Arshavin will not feature due to a hamstring strain.

Doubts surround the fitness of Eduardo and Alex Song. Thomas Vermaelen will grit his teeth to feature once more.

Probable Starting XI:
Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Fabregas, Denilson, Diaby; Nasri, Bendtner, Rosicky

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Porto


Radamel Falcao may be the Portuguese champions’ top scorer with 20 goals in all competitions, but their most heralded player in their current crop is young Brazilian forward Hulk. A real bulldog of a player, the 23-year-old was given his nickname due to his resemblance to actor Lou Ferrigno, but that’s not to say he doesn’t possess the strength of the most fearsome forward. If the former Tokyo Verdy player can impose himself on the game, Arsenal will find him hard to contain. His fitness is in question though.

Arsenal


Just where would Arsenal be without captain Cesc Fabregas? That’s a question Gunners fans the world over are doubtless pleased they don’t need to consider at the present time as the Spaniard has been in magnificent form this term. He boasts a hefty 14 goals in all competitions (three in the Champions League) and has notched up countless assists. The Barcelona youth product can turn any game in the blink of an eye.

PREDICTION


Few teams go to the Estadio do Dragao and earn a victory, and Arsenal will be no different. The Gunners may have undoubted class, but Porto remain one of the most under-rated sides in the European game at present, even if they are not of the calibre of Jose Mourinho’s famous 2004 vintage. Manchester United were pleased to earn a 1-1 draw at the venue nearly 12 months ago, and the north Londoners will be too.

Porto 1-1 Arsenal