Arsene Wenger has a been in his bonnet when it comes to the Champions League. It is the one major title which remains elusive to him and there is little doubt that winning it would once and for all vindicate his frugal transfer policy in favour of youth development.
Wenger appears convinced that his Gunners side this season has the right blend of skill and maturity to land Europe’s biggest prize this time round. There are plenty outside of North London who will need convincing and topping Group H which also contains Partizan Belgrade, Shakhtar Donestsk and Wednesday’s opponents Sporting Braga would be a good way to start.
Many will expect the clash against Portugese side Braga to be a mere formality for Arsenal, especially at home. However, underestimate Braga at your peril. They may not enjoy the rich history of Portugese giants Benfica and Porto, but they contain similar quality.
Braga disposed of Spanish side Sevilla, having previously brushed aside Celtic in order to reach the group stage of the competition and finished runners-up in the Portugese league last season. Although this is their debut Champions League campaign and coach Domingos Paciencia is likely to rely on a rearguard action to contain the Gunners, Braga have more than enough quality to ensure that they will give Arsenal problems, if given the chance. In particular Brazilians Matheus and Lima , who scored a hat-trick against Sevilla, will give the Gunners back four a stern test with compatriot Alan able to pull the strings behind them.
Team News and Tactics
Arsenal: Nasri returns, Diaby and Vermaelen out
The injury gods rarely appear to be on Arsenal’s side and that trend has shown little sign of abating this season. Having missed a large chunk of last season, Robin van Persie is again sidelined, where he joins fellow striker Nicklas Bendtner who has not played since the World Cup.
Theo Walcott is unlikely to return until next month, having been injured on international duty and of course youngster Aaron Ramsey’s return is still some way off. Abou Diaby will join the list of casualties, at least for the time being, having crumbled under a heavy challenge from Bolton’s Paul Robinson on Saturday. Better news though for Arsene Wenger is that French midfielder Samir Nasri is set to return to the Arsenal line-up against Braga after undergoing surgery.
However, Belgian centre-back Thomas Vermaelen is also missing as he is suffering from a minor Achilles problem. Vermaelen’s absence is quite a blow for Wenger, who will have to rely on two relatively inexperienced summer signings at the heart of defence. Laurent Koscielny is set to partner Sebastien Squillaci , both making their Champions League debuts with full-backs Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy coming back into the side, having both been rested at the weekend.
Given the injuries to Van Persie and Bendtner, Marouane Chamakh is set to remain a lone figure in attack on his Champions League debut for the Gunners. As always though, he will be ably supported by a talented midfield including the likes of skipper Cesc Fabregas , Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky, who was particularly impressive against Bolton on Saturday.
Sporting Braga: Looking to spring a counter-attacking surprise
Braga come into the game having been edged out of a five goal thriller away at Porto on Sunday. Braga went into the game as underdogs but gave their more illustrious hosts an incredibly tough game. They will hope to do the same at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday and Brazilian striker Matheus emphatically stated, “Arsenal are the favourites to win the match and the group – but we can spring a big surprise.”
Coach Domingos Paciencia will look to sustain the inevitable Arsenal pressure and catch Wenger’s side on the break, a tactic underscored by Matheus again who commented, “The key to the match for us will be to give our all and take advantage of the opportunities we get on the counterattack.”
In order to do so, Braga will look to the foundation of a solid back line. Goalkeeper Felipe is one of an incredible seventeen players brought in at Braga this summer and the Brazilian stopper has a reputation for spectacular saves. There is a very strong South American flavour to the side including the solid central-defensive partnership of Peruvian Alberto Rodriguez and Brazilian Moises Pinheiro. They are regarded as one of the best pairings in Portugal and are ably supported at full-back by young Portugese international Silvio and the more experienced and attacking minded Miguel Garcia.
The remainder of Paciencia’s line-up will revolve around the formation he opts to play. Expect Vandinho to anchor the midfield come what may. In terms of attacking options, there are plenty. The most likely scenario is to see the speedy Paulo Cesar as a lone striker, closely supported by the exciting Brazilian pair Matheus and Lima either side of him. Lima scored an excellent hat-trick in the previous round while Matheus has pace to burn and excellent technique. Meanwhile, Alan will be the hub of creativity behind Braga’s attacking play.
Former Newcastle player Hugo Viana may also make an appearance from the bench.
Players to Watch
Arsenal –Marouane Chamakh
The 26-year-old has been somewhat thrown into the deep end following his summer move from Bordeaux and he’s coped well. With Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner both injured, Chamakh has been left to lead the line by himself. He has acquitted himself well so far, scoring against both Blackpool and Bolton and will enhance his reputation further with solid displays in the Champions League.
Braga will be well aware of Arsenal’s reputation for flowing football, especially with the likes of Rosicky and Arshavin pushing forward. However, even if the Portugese side are able to stem the flow of the Gunners’ passing game, Chamakh provides a more physical threat in addition to his link-up play. The Moroccan provides a useful outlet for Wenger’s side and it is one that Braga will ignore at their peril.
Sporting Braga – Matheus
The 27-year-old has been a regular fixture in the Braga side for almost three years now. In that time, he has established a reputation for himself as one of the most dangerous attacking players in the Portugese league.
The Brazilian can play either on the left of midfield or as a second striker. His versatility is testament to his all round ability. Matheus is able to use his pace to beat players but also has the dribbling skill to take on opponents in tight areas. The one weakness to his game is his failure as yet to match his attacking play with goals. He could be more clinical once he reaches the box, but Matheus is able to put himself and his team-mates into dangerous positions.
Arsenal (4-5-1): Almunia, Sagna, Clichy, Squillaci, Koscielny, Fabregas, Song, Rosicky, Nasri, Arshavin, Chamakh
Sporting Braga (4-5-1): Felipe , Silvio, Moises, Rodriguez, Miguel Garcia, Vandinho, Luís Aguiar, Alan , Lima , Paulo Cesar , Matheus