The UEFA Champions League returns to action in midweek, as Matchday Five gets under way with Arsenal travelling to Portugal to take on Sporting Braga. Arsenal may sit atop of Group H with nine points but Braga are close on their heels with six points. In between the two sides is Shakhtar Donetsk, tied on points with Arsenal having beaten the Gunners in their last Champions League game, making this group very interesting.
In the reverse fixture at the Emirates, Arsenal humiliated the Portuguese sided 6-0 and Domingos Paciência’s side will be keen for revenge. Arsenal were stunned 3-2 by Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday while Sporting Braga lost 2-1 to Victoria Guimaraes in their last League game two weeks ago. Both teams go into the game on the back of losses and with both sides eager for all three points, we have a cracking game in prospect.
The Portuguese side struggled in the early part of the competition, losing to Arsenal and Shakhtar Donetsk. But they bounced back to do the double over Partizan to collect six valuable points. They are in with a fighting chance of making it into the next round and at the very least are sure of a place in the Europa League. After finishing second in the Portuguese League last season, they have struggled this time around and lie in 10th place. The European competitions might be a distraction but they provide the fans and players with the excitement that’s unmatched in the local Leagues.
They have problems at both ends of the pitch, with the defence and attack performing well below the expected standards. They have let in nine goals whilst scoring a measly three goals at the other end. The likes of Lima, Paulo Cesar and Mattheus have been disappointing up front and they’ll need to turn things around if they are to get anything out of the final two games against Arsenal and Shakhtar. At the back, Moises has been the one bright spot for Domingos Paciência, with the Brazilian leading from the front and scoring the vital goal away at Partizan that earned them a hard fought victory.
Alan and Luis Aguiar form the creative axis of the team from midfield and the ability of the strikers to hold the ball up field and bring in the midfielders will determine their fate in the competition.
The Gunners will be licking their wounds after failing to hold on to a two goal lead against arch-rivals Spurs. They dominated the first half to race into a 2-0 lead, but switched off in the 2nd to let Spurs back into the game, much to Arsene Wenger’s consternation. They need to pick up the pieces and turn their attention towards a tricky trip down South if they are to avoid a second loss on the bounce. On Matchday four, Arsenal were beaten 2-1 by a spirited Shakhtar Donetsk side but should make it through to the knockout stages without too much fuss.
Wenger is blessed with a dizzying array of attacking players at his disposal, with the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Samir Nasri, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky driving on from midfield. Marouane Chamakh has been a great addition to the team and has repaid the faith put in him by banging in six goals this season. He dominates the final third of the pitch and holds up the ball wonderfully to bring in the runners from midfield. In spite of the multifarious talents on display, Cesc Fabregas continues to be the heart and soul of the team. At the tender age of 23, the Spaniard has risen to take over the mantle from Patrick Vieira and drive the team towards success, on and off the field.
Arsenal’s over dependence on Fabregas was exposed by Spurs in the 2nd half, as they used Jermaine Jenas to close down the midfielder and once Fabregas went off the boil, the rest of the team soon followed suit and succumbed to a loss. They have had problems in defence too, especially in the prolonged absence of Thomas Vermaelen. They possess individually competent defenders, but as a unit their backline crumbles on one too many occasions. They have failed to keep a clean sheet in the competition since the 6-0 thrashing of Braga on Matchday one and they’ll need to tighten up at the back if they harbor hopes of reaching the latter stages of the competition.
Probable Line Ups:
Braga (4-4-2): Felipe (Gk), Garcia, Moises, Rodriguez, Elderson, Alan, Vandinho, Mossoro, Luis Aguiar, Lima, Mattheus
The Brazilian Felipe should start in goal while Moises and Alberto Rodriguez marshal the centre of defence. Miguel Garcia is expected to play at right back while Elderson should slot in at left back. The manager has decisions to make in midfield and the structure of the midfield will depend on their mindset going into the game. If they choose to go in with an attacking formation, Vandinho and Mossoro should control the centre of the park while Alan and Luis Aguiar attack from the wide positions. Else, they have the option of bringing in Leonadro Salino to strengthen the midfield. Up front, Lima is expected to partner Mattheus in a two-pronged attack.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Fabianski (Gk), Eboue, Squillaci, Koscielny, Gibbs, Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Walcott, Rosicky, Van Persie
Wenger has an almost fully fit squad at his disposal, with Vermaelen and Abou Diaby the only major absentees. Lukasz Fabianski has been impressive in recent weeks and should start in goal. The defensive pair of Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci are first choice in central defence while Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna will probably make way for Emmanuel Eboue and Kieran Gibbs in the full back positions. Jack Wilshere didn’t feature in the game against Spurs and might return to the withdrawn midfield position alongside Alex Song. Fabregas will play in the advanced central midfield role with Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky expected to play on either side of the Spaniard. Robin Van Persie came on for the last 20 minutes against Spurs, and should replace Chamakh as Arsene Wenger freshes up his squad for the trip to Portugal.