Arsenal's overdue decision to zip their lips with regard to the rumble in the tunnel had more to do with pragmatism than idealism. Saturday's near-defeat against Southampton illustrated to Arsène Wenger that his team had been unable to put their defeat at Old Trafford behind them.
Arsenal's overdue decision to zip their lips with regard to the rumble in the tunnel had more to do with pragmatism than idealism. Saturday's near-defeat against Southampton illustrated to Arsène Wenger that his team had been unable to put their defeat at Old Trafford behind them. By laying to rest the accompanying row he hopes his players will also be able to regain their forward momentum.
On the previous occasion that Wayne Rooney ended a long unbeaten Arsenal run - then wearing Everton colours - the North Londoners lost three of their next seven matches. A similar trough now might only hand Chelsea a marginal advantage domestically but it would definitely imperil Arsenal's prospects of progressing in the Champions' League.
Having drawn two of their opening three matches Arsenal have little room for error in the European arena and they host Panathinaikos knowing a victory is required. The portents are good. Arsenal have never lost to Greek opposition in four matches, three of them victories over tonight's visitors, who are themselves yet to win in England in seven attempts and lost 5-0 at Old Trafford last year.
That, though, was before Euro 2004 infused self-belief into Greek football. A poor start to the World Cup qualifiers has dissipated some of this but Panathinaikos can include Angelo Basinas, a key figure in the Greek midfield in Portugal. They also have the confidence engendered by twice coming back against Arsenal in Athens a fortnight ago. Arsenal, meanwhile, must again do without Sol Campbell whose calf injury is severe enough to put him in doubt for England's friendly in Spain on 17 November.
More seriously Wenger revealed that Brazilian midfielder Gilberto Silva will be out for three months with a back injury. With compatriot Edu also missing tonight, Cesc Fabregas, who was poor in Athens, should return. Jose Reyes has a minor hand injury but is expected to be available.
Of the quartet Campbell is the most difficult for Arsenal to replace, as was shown when Rory Delap scored twice from set-plays at the weekend. Bolton also snatched a point at Highbury from a dead-ball situation and Wenger yesterday admitted he was worried. "We are concerned that we are not as strong in the air as we used to be," said the Arsenal manager. "We have to work on this but I do not see it is difficult."
Arsenal are second in Group E with five points, one adrift of PSV Eindhoven and one ahead of Panathinaikos. "A victory gives us an 80 per cent chance to qualify," claimed Wenger, "so you can imagine how big a game this is for us."
The Greek champions also lost an unbeaten domestic record recently, unexpectedly going down to Kerkyra, of Corfu, the day before Arsenal made their trip to Manchester. However, they have since won twice and lie second in the Hellenic league, a point behind AEK Athens.
"They will play better at Highbury than they do at home," said Wenger, improbably given Panathinaikos have lost 18 of 25 away Champions' League ties. Patrick Vieira added: "They are a physically strong side who have two strikers who can score goals and the midfield will be packed. It will be difficult for us to find space."
That will certainly be true with the Greeks expected to play one-up. It may also be a bruising match but Vieira insisted Arsenal will be ready for that. "We can respond as we have some physical players too. We try to play football but, if there's a tackle to make, we will make it."
One area where Panathinaikos have the edge on Arsenal is in their European Cup pedigree. This will be Arsenal's 150th European match (they have won 71 and lost 41) but they are yet to make the last four in Europe's premier competition. The Greeks reached the final in 1971 and the semi-finals in 1996.
Vieira is convinced that Arsenal will soon make the breakthrough. "I really believe this year we have a good chance as we are strong at the back, really strong up front and we're not too bad in midfield either. We are improving every year and, if we don't do it this year, we will do it next year. We believe in ourselves."
Arsenal (probable 4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Cygan, Toure, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Fabregas, Pires or Reyes; Bergkamp, Henry.
Panathinaikos (probable 5-4-1): Chalkias; Vintra, Goumas, Morris, Kyrgiakos, Konstantinidis; Mitu, Basinas, Gonzalez, Skacel; Konstantinou.Reuse content