Wenger wary of Madrid threat on a night of reckoning at Highbury

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The Independent Football

An era will end at Highbury tonight. Either we will see the last game of European football hosted by Arsenal at their famous old stadium, or the final reckoning for the Real Madrid galacticos.

The end of the latter has been apparent for some time, although it was given fresh impetus by the impressive Arsenal victory at the Bernabeu two week ago which accelerated the resignation of Real's president Florentino Perez.

An end to Arsenal's Champions' League campaign before the move to the Emirates Stadium next season, however, cannot be countenanced by Arsène Wenger or his players, who hold a 1-0 advantage from the first leg.

"Our purpose is to go through, not to end an era," the Arsenal manager said yesterday. "We look at ourselves and I'm convinced that Real Madrid will have a good game. We have to make sure we're at our best."

Indeed, Wenger expects a more "physical" encounter than the match in Madrid, after which the Spanish club were accused of "standing off" their opponents in a fashion that is not permitted in the Premiership - although Wenger saw it differently, saying: "We were very mobile and didn't give them time to close us down."

He chose his words with strict caution yesterday, rating the second-leg of the tie as "50-50". "People still believe that Real Madrid has a good chance and we believe very strongly in our chances," he said.

Wenger will give further thought to the system and personnel he deploys until he receives intelligence as to how Real will approach the game.

"I'm still not completely decided because Real Madrid may change their system as well, so we'll adapt a little bit," the Arsenal manager said. That could mean Jose Antonio Reyes playing as "a second striker or a winger".

Wenger's caution is understandable. "It's to find the right balance," he said. "Because just one goal is a good cushion but it is as well not a cushion at all. It is just a result that dictates them to attack, to have a go at us. But you cannot play 90 minutes and think you just defend that goal. It is just not big enough."

That need for careful balancing was echoed by David Beckham. The Real midfielder, who reiterated his desire to sign a new contract at the club, said: "If we score one goal, we can get two. We have to be careful with Thierry Henry, Reyes and [Freddie] Ljungberg. If we play well we can win."

Wenger would not be drawn on the significance of the match for any of his players - "it's a game for Thierry Henry to help us go through," he said when questioned on what he expects from his captain - or the significance of knocking out Real.

"I don't say it would be a massive achievement," Wenger said. "It would be very important for us because we will have qualified for the quarter-final, but you know at Arsenal that is not enough. We want to achieve more.

"I believe it will be something that will help the team to grow and that is very important. To get some positive vibes is important."

No one is more aware of the absence of such "vibes" this season than Wenger, who admitted that it had "been difficult to convince people" that Arsenal were "turning the corner".

Despite a perceived vulnerability this season, Wenger's side have recorded five consecutive clean sheets in this competition and are two short of Milan's record. They have done so with changing personnel in a makeshift defence. The defender Ashley Cole has been a conspicuous absentee.

Wenger played down the significance of Cole's latest injury yesterday. The England full-back damaged his ankle last week, leading to fears that he could miss the World Cup.

"Somebody told me he would be out six to eight weeks," Wenger said. "Let's divide that by two - that is three to four. That takes us to the end of March. You can be completely reassured that for England he will be OK."

Ljungberg said Arsenal needed to attack Real. "They are a great team but if we go at them we can win the game," the Swedish midfielder said. "We have shown people that in the Champions' League we can still play very well."

Theo Walcott will again be on the bench and Wenger will not be afraid to use the teenage winger. Walcott has yet to play for the Gunners following his transfer from Southampton in January, but could become the second youngest player to appear in the Champions' League.

"I will not be scared to throw him on if it is needed because he shows good qualities in training," Wenger said. "I put him there because if I feel it is needed, I will send him on."

Arsenal will also welcome back Robert Pires and the goalkeeper Manuel Almunia. Pires, with a virus, and Almunia, with a hand injury, missed the 4-0 Premiership win at Fulham on Saturday, as did Robin van Persie, who is still recovering from a broken toe.

Real's new president Fernando Martin said the future of the club's Brazil striker Ronaldo was of minor importance. "I'm not bothered whether or not Ronaldo plays, all I want to do is to win," Martin said.

"You have to give people your confidence and understanding, but when they don't do what they are supposed to then you have to leave them out. If you don't solve problems then things turn rotten."

Ronaldo has been recalled for the Arsenal game after being dropped for last weekend's La Liga match against Atletico Madrid. The 29-year-old has hinted that he may leave at the end of the season.

Martin, who took charge last week, said Real could win. "The team are going to go all out against Arsenal," he said.

The 58-year-old businessman has distanced himself from Perez's policy of giving priority to the club's economic interests. "We have to reflect deeply on the state of the club," Martin said. "We have to balance a lot of interests, but sporting matters need to take precedence over finances".

Arsenal (probable, 4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Eboue, Senderos, Touré, Flamini; Hleb, Fabregas, Gilberto, Reyes; Ljungberg; Henry.

Real Madrid (probable, 4-1-4-1): Casillas; Salgado, Helguera, Bravo, Carlos; Gravesen; Beckham, Guti, Baptista, Zidane; Cassano.

Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).

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