Wenger smiles at timing of the Real revival

Where Arsenal are debilitated, Beckham and Co are suddenly buzzing once more
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The Independent Football

It was just as well that Arsène Wenger, returning to his Totteridge home after the bitter blow of Arsenal's 87th-minute defeat by Liverpool last Tuesday, was too late to watch television coverage of their Champions' League opponents Real Madrid. Any difficulty he had in getting to sleep while mulling over his team's current problems would have become full-blown insomnia.

The consolation until last weekend was that Real were also suffering. A humiliating 6-1 defeat by Zaragoza in the first leg of their Spanish Cup quarter-final suggested they might be in no better shape than Arsenal for what will be, remarkably, the first competitive meeting between the clubs. A sneering British newspaper headline over a picture of David Beckham asked: "So, you think you're ready to face Arsenal, do you Becks?"

Madrid's mistake had been to show their opponents too little respect, the temporary coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro leaving out Jonathan Woodgate and allowing the Brazilian full-backs Cicinho and Roberto Carlos to charge forward with little thought of defence. Ivan Hel-guera, the midfielder still occasionally masquerading as a central defender, was constantly exposed, and Zaragoza approached last Tuesday's second leg equally confident that all they had to do was turn up.

There was a rude shock for them when Real, their confidence rebuilt by a rare victory in bet-ween times away to Bilbao, tore into them with three goals in the first 10 minutes, two of them from excellent crosses by Beckham. While showing greater defensive discipline, each full-back hit a tremendous goal from some 25 yards, and at 4-0 with 20 minutes left, Real were favourites to go through on aggregate. Zara-goza somehow held out, but a point had been made.

Ready to face Madrid, Arsène? When the question was put on Friday, Arsenal's manager was as bullish as possible in circumstances that might have less resilient men requesting a postponement on compassionate grounds. Nine players are injured, and two signed during the January transfer window to bolster the squad, Emmanuel Adebayor and Abou Diaby, are ineligible for European games. The greatest of many worries is at left-back, where the young midfielder Mathieu Flamini had to fill in at Liverpool.

"Ideally you would like every-one to be available. but on the other hand I don't look for excuses before the game starts," Wenger said. "We are strong enough to deal with that. I feel personally that Mathieu Flamini had an outstanding game. Def-ensively he was efficient and going forward he gave some great balls. Nearly all the chances for Thierry Henry came from him."

Most will regard that as looking through rose (or redcurrant) spectacles, and no Arsenal fan could be happy about the thought of Cicinho and Beckham working the right flank against Robert Pires and Flamini.

Wenger is more realistic in his observations on what Madrid added to their game in the run of eight wins and one draw prior to the first Zaragoza match: "If you look at it objectively Barcelona have had a difficult patch and Real Madrid are coming back into the [champ-ionship] race. The new blood injected with Cicinho and Rob-inho has given them a fresh dynamic. They injected that little bit of penetrative pace that they lacked because they were a little bit too old. These two players gave them that. When they have so many good players you never know when is the best time to play them. Obviously their confidence is high and therefore they are more dangerous.

"But as well I feel we are on the way up despite our recent results and it is a good opportunity to show to the world we are a great side. I believe in the mental strength and inner character of these young players. They have shown that before. A big part of the game will be not to be overawed by the night and be faithful to what we do and have a little bit of the aggressive, deter-mined attitude that helps you produce good performances."

Woodgate, after all his injury horrors, is finding some form, and the expensive teenager Sergio Ramos could well be trusted to play alongside him, with Thomas Gravesen as the defensive shield in front of them. That would leave Beckham, Guti, Zinedine Zidane and Robinho in support of Ronaldo against Wenger's debilitated defence - with Julio Baptista, and poss- ibly Raul, in reserve. Ready to face Arsenal, Becks? He seems unlikely to be losing too much sleep.

Glamorous as that tie is, London bookmakers have neither team in their top six to win the cup. Barcelona are favourites, and ever since the draw last December brought gasps across Europe, neutrals have been awaiting their encounters against Chelsea with even greater anti-cipation than the games at the Bernabeu and Highbury.

Jose Mourinho may not mind playing the first leg on Wednesday at home, but being pitted against such opposition has made nonsense of his claims before Christmas that there was no benefit in winning the qualifying group. Liverpool did so, and playing Benfica is a reward that any side with serious intent would have preferred.

What a smile it would put on Scouse faces to be the last English club standing again. For that to happen they will need to defend in Lisbon on Tuesday as securely as in previous European ties in this elongated campaign, as scoring against the better sides has proved no easier than in the Premiership.

The bookies' lists offer a dep-ressing illustration of Rangers' standing as Villarreal prepare to visit Ibrox on Wednesday: 100-1 outsiders. Of those more favoured and better equipped to become the next European champions, the Italian triumvirate of Juventus, Milan and Internazionale, plus Gérard Houllier's underrated Lyon, should still be in the hat next time.

Operation Europe: The British challenge



Despite Benfica having reversed a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford to eliminate Manchester United in the group stage, this looks one of the less formidable ties that the defending champions could have pulled out. But their worrying lack of goals means that Rafael Benitez will want to keep a clean sheet in the first leg.

Danger: Nuno Gomes



Three away wins in the Champions' League this season contrasts with Arsenal's wretched record on the English motorways, but Real Madrid are a huge step up from Arsenal's group-stage opposition of Ajax, Sparta Prague and FC Thun. Arsenal will require one of their best performances just to keep the tie alive for the Highbury leg.

Danger: Ronaldo



The controversies surrounding last season's games tended to obscure how thrilling the football was before Chelsea came through 5-4 on aggregate; just as it had been when they lost 6-4 in 2000. The coolest heads will be the ones that escape the chop, so Jose Mourinho needs to play down the hype.

Danger: Ronaldinho



Rangers have drawn an opponent who might give just a glimmer of hope. The Spaniards won Manchester United's group after two goalless draws against them and another one here would suit them.

Danger: Riquelme

Latest odds: (William Hill): 4-1 Barcelona; 5 Juventus; 6 Chelsea; 8 Lyon; 10 Milan, Inter; 11 Real Madrid, Liverpool; 14 Villarreal, Bayern; 16 Arsenal; 40 PSV; 50 Benfica; 66 Werder, Ajax; 100 Rangers.

Steve Tongue