Wenger uplifted by his defenders of the faith
For a 10th successive year, Arsenal are in the second phase of the Champions' League, no nearer than ever to becoming London's first European champions but delighted to add a little zest to plain old Premier League fare. Although supporters may have enjoyed the midweek taste of victory over Liverpool, whom they now lead by eight points, few seem to believe that Arsène Wenger's team are capable of matching the feast that Carlo Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson are cooking up.
Emphatic defeats by Chelsea and Manchester United in the two preceding games left a majority looking to Europe; Arsenal could, of course, encounter that pair again there – it was, after all, United and Liverpool who knocked them out in the past two seasons – but with Uefa keeping clubs from the same country apart in this round, the draw has been kind. Porto, for all their six domestic championships in seven years since the Jose Mourinho era began, are playing second fiddle to Benfica this season and do not like English opposition.
In 13 visits to this country they have never won, losing on 11 of those occasions and avoiding defeat only in two games at Old Trafford. Chelsea may have been pushed twice in group games against them this season but still won 1-0 each time. Last season at the Emirates Porto were drubbed 4-0 and they have scored in only one of four meetings with Arsenal, when Wenger's side gave a substandard performance in the return game.
Not that he is going to fall for talking down the opposition ahead of Wednesday's first leg in the Estadio do Dragao. "Porto is a tough draw," he insisted. "They don't look like a prestigious team but every year they are in there and they can surprise people. They have also been playing very well recently." Every year, as he says, they are "in there" but every year they are soon out of there as well, at this first knockout stage for three of the past five seasons and in the quarter-finals last time, beaten at home by Cristiano Ronaldo's goal for United.
Hulk, the Brazilian named after the comic-book hero, made a quiet international debut against England in November and has been outscored recently by the Colombian Falcao, whose six goals in the past four league games have given him 14 in 17 matches this season.
But Arsenal's defence having subdued Liverpool so effectively on Wednesday, with William Gallas outstanding, Wenger understandably believes they will take new belief to Portugal. "It would have been difficult for us to lose to Liverpool and go to Porto in full confidence," he said. "It was important for the team to lift the morale and the belief again, so that game was very important for the Champions' League. When you lose two massive games on the trot nobody imagines how hard it is in this job, and if you lose a third one it is unbelievable. We can go now in better confidence.
"Also what is very important for us is that we know we had to go to Porto with a solid defensive performance and I am reassured," Wenger added. "We looked solid defensively for the first time in the last three big games and that was vital before the Champions' League starts again. Let's keep our defensive discipline and I'm sure we can score."
To do so against Liverpool required, in the end, that collector's item, a powerful header from a cross. Now that Abou Diaby, who scored it, is nearing full fitness again, and with Nicklas Bendtner and Thomas Vermaelen going forward for set-pieces, there is at least – and at last – an aerial option. Entering the dragons' den on Wednesday, Arsenal can for once fight fire with some fire of their own.
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