They are on the brink of the biggest match in their history, a place in the European Cup final is at stake. The rehabilitation of Sol Campbell would be better suited to less dramatic times than tonight, but for Arsenal and their manager, Arsène Wenger, it simply cannot wait.
Against Villarreal, the 31-year-old defender will be pitched back into a team that has thrived without him, returning for only the second time since he took that extraordinary leave of absence at half-time against West Ham in February. On that night Campbell walked out of Highbury in despair at his own performance, his career appeared to be over, his confidence shot. Less than three months later he is back at the heart of a defence protecting Arsenal's 1-0 first-leg Champions' League semi-final lead.
A "little gamble" was how Wenger described his decision when he confirmed yesterday that Campbell would be in the side for the return leg in place of Philippe Senderos, whose knee ligament injury against Tottenham on Saturday will keep him out for three weeks. Two injury-ravaged seasons for Campbell are drawing to a close, perhaps his Arsenal career too, and tonight may determine what the England international has left to offer.
He joins the most formidable defence in the Champions' League, a back four that is on a run of nine consecutive clean sheets, only two of which were accomplished with Campbell in the side. Without him, the partnership of Senderos and Kolo Touré has thrived, Campbell has been pushed towards the margins for Arsenal and England and even Wenger admitted that tonight will have a significant bearing on his World Cup prospects.
"You can say that [it is the wrong time for Campbell to return], but you can say completely the opposite as well," Wenger said. "Where better to show his strength and quality than in a semi-final where you know you will have to defend well? I trust his quality and his strength.
"This is what you dream of. In his position, he couldn't dream of a better way to come back. Don't forget that Sol was in our defence when we had our 49-game unbeaten run. That's why I still believe that everybody has complete confidence in Sol."
It is a confidence that has been strained by two fragmented seasons and more injury problems than Campbell might care to remember. This season alone he has had calf and hamstring problems and a bruised bone. When he returned against Portsmouth on 12 April he broke his nose. But nothing has proved quite as fragile as Campbell's own self-belief.
He may be relieved that Wenger has chosen him for such a momentous game, but the way the Arsenal manager was talking yesterday it seemed that the 19-year-old centre-back Johan Djourou was not completely out of consideration. So severe was Campbell's reaction to his humbling at the hands of West Ham on 1 February that it was possible to imagine his career ending as he took his leave of Highbury that night.
"I believe the circumstances [around Campbell] have changed," Wenger said. "I agree Sol had a weakness in his life on that day, but that can happen to anybody. I feel everybody in our team is capable of understanding that. He didn't walk away because he was fed up. It was just because he couldn't [carry on].
"It is a little gamble because he does not have the number of games you would wish him to have played but physically he is all right. Fortunately, he had a good game against Portsmouth so I feel he will be OK."
The second tough decision that Wenger has had to make is the omission of Robert Pires, who looks set to sign a deal with Villarreal this summer when his current contract with Arsenal expires. It is a sign of how fractured the relationship between the club and one of their most famous names has become that Wenger is prepared to leave him out on the grounds that it would, sources have suggested, represents a "conflict of interest".
The decision to leave him out makes it clear that any attempt to keep Pires at the club has now been abandoned and that Wenger has refused to budge on his offer of a one-year deal only for the Frenchman. No Pires, but Jose Antonio Reyes is back from suspension and he is certain to start on the left wing with Freddie Ljungberg operating behind Thierry Henry, the lone striker. But the threat to Arsenal will come from the usual source.
Wenger said that he expected Juan Riquelme to be much less "timid" at Villarreal's El Madrigal stadium where the Argentinian playmaker will be expected to orchestrate his side's fight-back from their one-goal deficit. But even with his side likely to be pushed back up, and different personnel among their defence, the Arsenal manager restated his commitment to attacking football.
"I am convinced Villarreal will play a 4-4-2 formation with Jose Mari and Diego Forlan in attack and Riquelme the provider again. They will certainly be less timid than they were in the first game. It is down to us to play a compact game, and I feel we have to play to win the game. It will be down to how well organised we are when we don't have the ball and how we go forward when we do have the ball. We have a team who try to go forward."
Riquelme said yesterday that this could work in Villarreal's favour. "The first leg gave us the belief we will score against Arsenal," he said. "With hard work and confidence we will be fine. Our confidence has not been dented by the first-leg result. I have said already that I like the way Arsenal play ... but they have weaknesses - the same ones which every attack-minded team has. I'm sure that they will concede more than one at El Madrigal. That record has to come to an end some time. I don't know one team that has stopped conceding goals in Europe for ever."
Wenger was accused yesterday by the Villarreal manager, Manuel Pellegrini, of being a hypocrite for bemoaning the Spanish side's tendency to make the most of fouls and then berating the Tottenham head coach, Martin Jol, for his players' failure to stop play in the same circumstances on Saturday. "I feel quite relaxed," Wenger said yesterday, "contrary to the impression I gave on Saturday - because I believe that my team is up for it and I completely trust them."
His selection of Campbell is a sign how far that trust stretches.Reuse content