Multilingual Senderos to let his feats do the talking in Milan

Defender winning over the fans as Arsenal's critical moment arrives

With five languages to his name, Philippe Senderos is a useful figure to have in the Tower of Babel that is the Arsenal dressing room. Recently he has been convincing some of the club's more sceptical supporters that he has his uses as a central defender too. Outstanding in the goalless draw at home to Milan two weeks ago, after being summoned as an early substitute for the injured Kolo Touré, he is desperate to keep his place for the return in the San Siro on Tuesday as Arsène Wenger's side face a critical moment in their season.

Judgement was harsh in the early days on the tall central defender, when a wrinkled brow belied his youth and a shining reputation proved hard to live up to. But Wenger has always had faith in one of those youngsters snaffled away from their local club at an early age in the face of some stiff competition.

Five years ago, every major European scout knew – or should have done – about the strapping captain of Switzerland's winning team at the European Under-17 Championship. Servette, Senderos's hometown club in Geneva, had been coaching him since the age of six, but could not resist even Arsenal's modest £500,000 offer in December 2002 and were just happy to keep him until the following summer. Within two years, Servette were declared bankrupt, and are only now fighting their way back through the Swiss leagues.

Real Madrid, one of the clubs tracking Senderos, would have been an understandable attraction for a player whose Spanish father has always supported them but, showing typical maturity, Senderos Jnr felt that Arsenal was a better option for a young player than the Bernabeu hothouse. The multi-cultural element to the club rather suited him as the product of a cosmopolitan family and city: his mother is Serbian and at school he was one of only a couple of Swiss in his class.

"My dad and mum met in Geneva; he was working in a restaurant as a maître d'hôtel and my mum was a PA," says the 23-year-old. "I never went short of anything, but my parents came from backgrounds where they had to work to get something. The first thing in my education was that nothing grows on trees, I had to work for it, and if I had an opportunity, to grab it.

"I come from a working family but I had the opportunity to play for a club and have a good education, that's part of the Swiss system. I'm lucky on that side when I compare myself to other players who didn't have those opportunities."

Hence his willingness to take part in Arsenal's impressively varied community schemes: "The club is made of so many cultures and nationalities that it reflects society, that's why I think Arsenal is so good for us."

Nor did he look out of place last Thursday at an almost bewilderingly cross-cultural event, when Your Game 2008, the BBC's festival of street football, dance and music, was launched in a basement car park decorated with original Banksy works beneath the Swiss Ambassador's central London residence. Some of the participants will be invited to the Euro 2008 finals in Switzerland this summer , where Senderos – who won his 25th cap at Wembley during the 2-1 defeat by England in Fabio Capello's first game in charge last month – will be a central figure for his country.

In a more conventional ante-room later, he turned his thoughts and his fluent English to Milan. "It was a fantastic first leg for the team. We showed great character and desire and put them on the back foot. They've got great quality players and you always have to keep an eye on them, and defensively we had a very good game. We were on top of them the whole game and they didn't really have clear-cut chances."

Surely Arsenal did not either, until Emmanuel Adebayor headed the best one against the crossbar with a minute to play? "I thought they defended pretty deep because they were probably scared of our pace and our movement up front, so it's really difficult to break down a team who defend like that, with two lines of four and two free players up front."

One of those free players was the world player of the year, Kaka, whose fondness for playing in between midfield and attack has managed to confound many a defence. "It was difficult but we studied that. We know Kaka is a player who likes the space between the lines of midfield and attack, so as a defender you have to push in and try to limit that space so we can be right behind him when he gets the ball.

"We did that quite well and it's going to be very similar in the away leg. You could see the Milan players were very tired towards the end, a few had cramp and it took a lot of energy out of them. Mentally I think we've got an edge on them and hopefully we'll make the most of it in the second leg. Kaka is an important player and they will want him to get on the ball in that space. I do not know whether they will put one or two up front but he will definitely be the one to look for."

It has been a difficult week at Arsenal after the ghastly injury suffered by Eduardo da Silva, although Senderos maintains that the squad have become more united in their determination to win something for their stricken team-mate. The last-gasp equaliser at home to Aston Villa yesterday kept the Gunners at the top of the Premier League despite Senderos's own goal.

"During the week we've been looking after Eduardo, all been to see him at the hospital and now at his house to wish him all the best. It's definitely strengthened our belief and motivation because we want to do something for him as well. In the League, we're in the best position there is, we're top, and we've got a great team with a lot of players coming back from injury and a lot of belief."

And a fellow defender's view of the challenge by Martin Taylor? "It was a bad tackle because it became such a bad injury. The way you play football you have to play with intelligence and sometimes you can get a bit carried away. That's what happened this time. It was a bad challenge and a bad outcome. I'm sure he didn't wish to break anyone's leg, but you have to be careful in what you do."

Match-by-match guide

TUESDAY

Barcleona (3) v Celtic (2)

Even without the dreadful travel sickness that afflicts them on leaving Glasgow Airport, Celtic could not realistically expect to reach the last eight after being undone by the brilliance of Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry at Parkhead. Respectable defianceis all that can be asked for.

Manchester Utd (1) v Lyon (1)

The sudden improvement by Nani and Anderson in recent weeks has given United a new dimension, not least in allowing Ryan Giggs more rest. His 100th Champions' League appearance ended happily when Carlos Tevez (right) stole a late goal that should provide a springboard for victory here.

Milan (0) v Arsenal (0)

Kaka, Alessandro Nesta and Clarence Seedorf all hope to be fit by Tuesday, in which case Arsenal's task will look even tougher following Emmanuel Adebayor's miss in the last minute of the first game. But Milan will also need to be sharper up front than the young Brazilian prodigy Pato was.

Sevilla (2) v Fenerbahce (3)

Juande Ramos's former club equalised twice in Istanbul but their good work was undone when Senturk scored Fenerbahce's third in the last few minutes. Sevilla cannot afford to concede the next goal in the return leg but ought to go through if they don't.

WEDNESDAY

Chelsea (0) v Olympiakos (0)

A limp performance in Athens proved to be the precursor of another one at Wembley five days later, and now alarm bells are sounding about the course of Chelsea's season. Disenchantment with Avram Grant will continue if the less than formidable Greek champions are not seen off comprehensively.

Porto (0) v Schalke (1)

The German side, progressing this far for the first time, feel they should be travelling to Portugal with a greater advantage than the one supplied by Kevin Kuranyi's goal. But having looked suspect defensively for some time, they were happy enough with a clean sheet and remain confident.

Real Madrid (1) v Roma (2)

Having lost the early lead given to them by Raul in the Olympic Stadium, then having seen the gap at the top of the Spanish League unexpectedly curtailed by Barcelona, Real are suddenly under pressure. That away goal remains invaluable, however, and they must be narrow favourites to progress.

Latest betting: 7-2 Barcelona; 9-2 Manchester Utd; 5-1 Chelsea; 8-1 Liverpool; 9-1 Real Madrid; 10-1 Arsenal, Milan; 18-1 Internazionale, Sevilla; 20-1 Roma; 33-1 Schalke; 40-1 Lyon, Porto; 80-1 Fenerbahce, Olympiakos; 250-1 Celtic. (Odds by William Hill).

Internazionale (0) v Liverpool (2) will be played on 11 March as ground-sharers Milan host Arsenal.

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