Arsene Wenger revealed last night that he was considering bringing back Robin van Persie four weeks ahead of schedule to play in tonight's Champions League last 16 second-leg game against Barcelona in what represents a major gamble with the striker's long-term fitness.
The Arsenal manager said that the 27-year-old forward would undergo a fitness test this morning on the injury to his right knee that he picked up against Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final nine days ago. Wenger had said on Wednesday night that Van Persie was four weeks away from fitness but changed that prognosis dramatically yesterday, claiming the player had improved over the weekend.
Wenger denied it was a risk to pick a player who has endured notoriously bad luck with injuries over his Arsenal career. There were also echoes of the desperation with which Cesc Fabregas played on with a broken foot in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona last season.
Wenger brushed off any concerns that Van Persie could make the problem worse if he played tonight. The Arsenal manager said that he would only play Van Persie if he was "100 per cent fit", quipping that he would consider him if he is "99.5 per cent fit". Asked whether he was playing games with Barcelona, Wenger said: "I'm very bad at mind games. It's no mind game. We will see [today] when the medical staff check with him."
The Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola, expressed his surprise at Van Persie's swift return and there was a noticeable change in the usually cordial atmosphere between the two teams, not least when Guardiola said that he "had many players" as good as Jack Wilshere in the Barcelona reserve team.
For his part, Wenger claimed there was no risk in playing Van Persie, who is likely to start on the bench, with Nicklas Bendtner the favourite to take the central striking role ahead of Marouane Chamakh. "There are two kinds of problem," Wenger said in reference to Van Persie's injury. "Cesc Fabregas's [injury] was muscular. Van Persie's is a ligament [problem]. With muscular injuries there is more risk. In the case of Robin van Persie, it's just a case of, does he feel fit to play or not? There's no chance of a recurrence."
Alex Song is definitely out of the game and did not travel with the squad. His place will be taken by either Abou Diaby or Denilson. The club captain Fabregas has been passed fit and will play a game for the first time at the Nou Camp, the home of the club he left for Arsenal at the age of 16.
Wenger was more certain that there was no risk attached to Fabregas playing for the first time since he picked up an injury playing against Stoke on 23 February. Asked whether he was concerned, Wenger said: "I am because it's 13 days and it's a bit short but we leave any possible test until now. [Yesterday] was the final test to make sure we don't take a silly gamble."
"He will be 100 per cent or not play. Cesc is a winner and he will want to win the game. He's the leader of the team, we have an advantage and the good thing is that, though it is a minimal advantage, it means it makes them come out and attack."
Fabregas said that he was ready to play. "My fitness is good," he said. "For the last six days I've not felt anything and I've been training outside. It was a small problem, but I preferred to be safe. I wouldn't risk my health just because I want to play. That wouldn't be professional or good for my team-mates."
A native Catalan and the focus of significant interest from Barcelona, Fabregas only just concealed his irritation at the interest in his return to the club that he asked Arsenal to let him join in the summer. "I feel like everybody [else]," he said. "We want to win, we want to do well for the club and go through to the quarter-finals.
"I'm not here to beat anyone specifically. I'm just here to win for Arsenal Football Club. I want to win for Arsenal, and that's it. I don't put anything extra in my head because it's Barcelona in the Nou Camp. It's a special game for everyone as it's a great stadium and a good team."
Fabregas added that he had only known Van Persie was planning a return when his team-mate "bandaged his ankle" before training yesterday morning. He said: "Robin is a very important player for us as he's a complete striker and understands the game very well. For a midfield player he gives you lots of options. I'm very surprised as [yesterday] we didn't know anything.
"He woke up this morning saying he felt really great and wanted to practise. We saw him bandaging his ankle before training and he said he wanted to try. It's not a game you play every day, it could be a semi-final or a final."