Campbell draws from England's spirit as Depor deliver lesson

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"The Professor" had immediately calculated how Arsenal would qualify for the Champions' League quarter-finals, even if he found the reasons perplexing. The Strasbourg University economics graduate, Arsène Wenger, probably has logarithm books for that purpose tucked away in his office. Which was fortunate, because it was as much beyond some members of the media as it probably had been his players.

You'll go through if you win in Turin next week, it was put to Sol Campbell? "Nah, don't think that's right," responded the Arsenal centre-back, brow creased, as the image of him and his team-mates punching calculators in their dressing room came to mind. "I think you'll find it's out of our hands. All we can do is to go there and win – and then hope."

It's not often these days that Arsenal have to depend on such vague terms. That is more the vocabulary expected of someone like Dave Bassett at Leicester City. Where Arsenal are concerned, England are entitled to expect. Yet, within 90 minutes on Tuesday night the Gunners had withered in perception from beasts of almost mythical proportions to mortals. The question was whether Wenger's team had attained their optimum at this level, that all along their claim to being one of the finest teams in Europe had been fraudulent, or they had just been unfortunate enough to turn a corner and run head on into a real juggernaut.

Depor were a joy, so much so that many of the Highbury faithful as well as their travelling fans rose to them at the conclusion. The players, including Juan Carlos Valeron, the scourge of the Arsenal rearguard and scorer of the first, captain Fran, who has been with the club since their second division days, Diego Tristan, the assertive target man, and Mauro Silva, the 1994 Brazilian World Cup winner, who has spent a decade at Depor, responded by hurling their shirts into their followers' arms, and – a nice gesture which went unseen by most present – offered at least one to Arsenal's wheelchair-bound supporters.

Thierry Henry and Co were like men who had chloroform pressed over their faces, so lifeless did they appear at times in front of goal. When Depor broke they did so with vicious intensity. Although when Nourredine Naybet scored their second it was deflected past David Seaman by Igors Stepanovs, the damning evidence was that they were queueing for the opportunity, such was the Gunners' disarray.

There were those who suggested that Tony Adams and Martin Keown might have made the Arsenal rearguard a more stubborn entity, but the reality is that, in this irresistible mood, few could have lived with them. Manchester United, already humbled twice this season by the Spanish team, would presumably concur.

Today's Premiership encounter at Aston Villa will inform us whether the London side have escaped with mainly superficial injuries and just a dent to their pride. Wednesday's final fixture in Group D will confirm whether the damage requires extensive repair work. For Arsenal that will be a night when strength of character will be required as much as speed of thought, but much will depend on the approach of Juventus, whose Champions' League season has ended. All will still be lost if Bayer Leverkusen win. In the match played simultaneously, Deportivo can lose to the German side and still qualify. But to Arsenal's advantage, the Spanish team need to draw at least to retain their top position.

That it should come to this was not entirely unexpected, in view of Depor's record against English clubs. As you looked for specific explanations among the debris of the 2-0 defeat, it was tempting to suggest that the mere concept of a treble was beginning to weigh heavily, that its accumulative effect – particularly with the present extent of Arsenal's injuries – was just too daunting.

The philosophical Campbell had not enjoyed one of his most assured hour and a halves, which had been witnessed by the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson. He dismissed that thought instantly. "We're not talking about that [the treble]. Everybody else is talking about it because of the situation we're in. But anyway, despite tonight, we're still in with a shout. We're in a good position. Arsenal are a club that needs to win things. With the players we've got here we're capable of doing that."

The England man added: "We've got to keep going and hold on to the belief that we can bring some kind of silverware home. If it's three, it's three. Football is all about dreams, and if it's meant to be, it will be. We've done the easy work. It's the hard work now we've reached this stage of the season. Players are starting to come back after injury and that will help us big-time. It will ease the pressure on the rest of the squad. That will be a major factor in what we can achieve."

Campbell has been here before, at least in similar circumstances if not the competition – in Munich last September, when England had to defeat Germany and did so with a vengeance. He believes that such an experience and the fact that players like Patrick Vieira and Fredrik Ljungberg know what it takes to be winners at the highest level means that Arsenal possess the experience required to progress.

Ljungberg, who was performing with such distinction before the injury that kept him out for 10 games, demonstrated on Tuesday when he appeared as substitute, "winning" a penalty (missed by Henry), just how much the Gunners have missed his ability to lance a defence with one of those impeccably timed runs.

Arsenal will need him this week, one in which they must maintain their championship assault with victory against Villa before, three days later, attempting to preserve a Champions' League presence. Last season, at the same stage, they achieved the latter, despite defeat in the last group- phase fixture at Bayern Munich. The same could happen again. It will be a nervy business. But Tuesday's result means they must now live in hope, not anticipation.