By Randy Osae
Arsene Wenger’s 700th game in charge of Arsenal might seem like a battle for the wooden spoon, but Wenesday’s trip to Portugal holds a lot more essence – because the pinnacle of Group G has not been reached by neither side. Top spot will be fought for.
It is no secret that Wenger’s men relish clashes with Europe’s biggest boys the most, but they will much rather have those showdowns preserved for latter stages of the competition.
Therefore, by finishing top of Group G, Arsenal can avoid an uphill battle similar to last year’s “Italian job” against AC Milan. The Gunners’ boss knows the vitality in the visit to Porto, and has confessed there could be some ‘guilt’ in ditching their pole position the group and potentially facing a tough task to return to the quarter-finals of the Champions League – where last season’s adventure ceased.
“It is difficult to say [if it will be important] but would we not feel guilty if we had a massive draw in the last 16?” asked Wenger. “We would have not done something when we know it can punish us.
Indeed, ending the group-stages at top spot, does not necessarily guarantee a soft draw in the round of 16. This term’s European competition has demonstrated that teams find simply escaping their groups more of an urgency than leading it through. Even local neighbors Chelsea will concede that note – finishing second best to Roma in their section.
Fairly, it’s significant that Arsenal win their group, but don’t be shocked if they are handed another spectacle to progress. They could still face fellow heavy weights whether group top dogs or not.
“We want to finish first because we want to be the best. But it does not seem that first or second will make a huge difference this year.” Wenger said.
William Gallas and Abou Diaby returned to join the squad that flew off to Portugal but Gail Clichy (hamstring), Cesc Fabregas (knee) and Samir Nasri (ankle) are injured while Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie and Kolo Toure are rested.
Those ommisions to several first team choices have paved the way for youngsters Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Gavin Hoyte, Mark Randall, Fran Merida, Jack Wilshere and Jay Simpson to play a part on Wednesday.