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Disintegrating Arsenal versus rejuvenated Real Madrid
Simon Baskett | February 20, 2006 17:55 IST
It is the last-chance saloon for Arsenal when they face a rejuvenated Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.
For Arsene Wenger's side the game represents their only remaining hope of saving a season that is threatening to disintegrate around them and to make matters worse they appear to have caught the Spaniards just when they have rediscovered their best form.
The Londoners, who impressed in the group stage, have gone into freefall in recent months and hardly look to be in the best shape to face up to their first-ever meeting with the nine-times European champions.
They are out of both English cups and are struggling in fifth place in the league, 25 points behind runaway leaders Chelsea.
It is unknown territory for Wenger, who after finishing third in his arrival season in 1996/97 has led Arsenal to a top two finish every year since.
The bad news for Wenger is that anything beyond the Champions League quarter-finals is also unknown and he is only just about on nodding terms with the last eight after regular frustrations in Europe's elite competition.
A taxing injury list, a string of poor results and some off-field distractions complete a miserable picture for the Frenchman going into the club's biggest game of the season.
"At the moment we are struggling a little from a confidence problem," Wenger said after a late 1-0 defeat at Liverpool on Tuesday, Arsenal's seventh away loss of the season.
Sol Campbell, who went missing for several days after being substituted in a 3-2 home defeat by West Ham United two weeks ago, is absent injured and though Kolo Toure is back from the African Nations Cup the defence remains lightweight.
As so often before, Arsenal's hopes appear to depend on Thierry Henry - but with the club captain also perhaps distracted by daily media speculation about his future it is a lot to ask of the France striker.
As far as who is going to partner him, Jose Antonio Reyes remains a doubt with an ankle injury, Dennis Bergkamp says he is prepared to travel by road and sea while 16-year-old Theo Walcott could be given an incredible debut, possibly off the bench.
Real's season has been the mirror image of Arsenal's, a poor start giving way to a series of confident displays under new coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro.
They chalked up their sixth league win in a row with an easy 3-0 victory over struggling Alaves on Saturday and received a further boost with the return to action of skipper Raul after three months out because of a serious knee injury.
Although Real went out of the King's Cup last week spirits were raised by their storming, but ultimately futile, 4-0 win over Real Zaragoza in which they narrowly failed to overturn a 6-1 first-leg deficit.
Ronaldo is set to make his first start for Real in a Champions League match this season and Robinho has hit a rich vein of scoring form, notching up his 11th goal of the season in all competitions against Alaves.
If Raul plays he will become the first player to appear in 100 Champions League games - he is the competition's all-time leading scorer with 51.
The Arsenal match will be particularly special for English duo David Beckham and Jonathan Woodgate, marking as it does their first games against Premier League opposition since they moved to Spain.
"If this team plays to its full potential then we can be devastating and, if we do that, hopefully we'll get a good result and beat Arsenal," Beckham said on Sunday.
Real Madrid: 1-Iker Casillas, 11-Cicinho, 4-Sergio Ramos, 18-Jonathan Woodgate, 3-Roberto Carlos; 16-Thomas Gravesen; 23-David Beckham, 5-Zinedine Zidane, 14-Guti, 10-Robinho; 9-Ronaldo
Arsenal: 1-Jan Lehmann; 27-Emmanuel Eboue , 28-Kolo Toure, 20-Philippe Senderos, 16-Matheiu Flamini; 7-Robert Pires, 19-Gilberto, 15-Cesc Fabregas, 8-Freddie Ljungberg; 14-Thierry Henry, 9-Jose Antonio Reyes/11-Robin van Persie.
Referee: Stefano Farina (Italy)
(Additional reporting by Mitch Phillips)
UEFA Champions League 2005-06: The Complete Coverage