Arshavin blames defence for taking Arsenal's qualification to the wire

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The Independent Online

Andrei Arshavin might have been part of the delegation that convinced Fifa to give Russia the right to host the 2018 World Cup finals, but the Arsenal man showed precious little diplomacy when he bluntly accused his team's defence of failing this season.

Arsenal must win tonight against Partizan Belgrade to be certain of a place in the Champions League first knockout round and although they could potentially progress with a defeat, that would be contingent on Braga also losing to Shakhtar Donetsk. Arsenal have to match Braga's result in order to be sure of progressing.

Arshavin said yesterday: "We struggle all the time in defence. We have to score more than we concede. That's it. Of course we try to improve but we can't. We don't blame our defenders. Sometimes I can't run [track-back] and that's why sometimes I let my [opposing] defenders make the cross and the forward scores.

"It [defending] doesn't always depend on the defenders. We must improve as a team on our defending. Normally I can't go past the [Arsenal] defenders in training."

The French centre-back Laurent Koscielny, who has had an indifferent season, is back in contention to start tonight after suffering a blow to his head during the win over Fulham on Saturday. There was good news for Arsenal when manager Arsène Wenger announced that both Cesc Fabregas and Abou Diaby were back training yesterday and have a small chance of playing against Manchester United on Monday night.

Having scored 14 goals in their first three Champions League group games, conceding just two, Arsenal have let in four in their two subsequent defeats away at Shakhtar and Braga. Arshavin said that he was convinced his team would finish second in their group, opening up the possibility that they could draw Barcelona or Real Madrid in the next round.

He said: "We lost two games and now we have to win to get second. But what can you do? We just have to win and now we will see what the draw will give us. We have no chance of finishing top. I think Shakhtar will be first. It disappoints me. Before we played at the Emirates, I said Shakhtar and Braga are good teams, especially at home."

The long-term absence of Thomas Vermaelen with an Achilles injury, and fears that Johan Djourou's thigh problem cannot be risked, means that Wenger has little option but to stick with the partnership of Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci in central defence. Wenger admitted that he had changed the team unsuccessfully for the two most recent Champions League defeats in order to rest players for the Premier League games the following weekend.

Wenger said: "The problem we have had is that in the five [of the six league] matches played after the Champions League group games, we are away from home. So when we went to Aston Villa [four days after the Braga away game], we were in a position where we had to win. If you play exactly the same players you have more chances to lose the game.

"We were in a position where we could manage the position as we had nine points [in the Champions League]. We thought 'OK, we can rotate'. It didn't work in the Champions League, I must admit, but it worked in the Premier League because we always got good results away. In the last game [against Braga] we were really unlucky."

There is still the possibility that Arsenal could face Barcelona in the next round, the team that eliminated them last season and are, according to Wenger, the "super-favourites" this season. Wenger said: "With that game [against Real Madrid] they said 'everybody, we are the super-favourites of this [Champions League] competition. The team which wants to win this competition has to knock us out'. That is what they said. That was the case last year."

Group H

Results so far: Arsenal 6-0 Braga, Shakhtar 1-0 Partizan; Partizan 1-3 Arsenal, Braga 0-3 Shakhtar; Braga 2-0 Partizan, Arsenal 5-1 Shakhtar; Partizan 0-1 Braga, Shakhtar 2-1 Arsenal; Braga 2-0 Arsenal, Partizan 0-3 Shakhtar.

Remaining fixtures: Tonight Arsenal v Partizan, Shakhtar v Braga.

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