In many ways tomorrow’s match in El Madrigal is the perfect antidote to the weekends North London derby. This is not a visit to Craven Cottage for a routine three points; it is the chance to reach the final of The Champions League, the pinnacle of European Club football. For the more experienced players – Henry, Pires, Lehmann, Campbell, Ljungberg – this is the match they have been working towards for the best part of a decade, and failing unspectacularly before now. The question is really about how the inexperienced players will cope with the pressure that they are now under. If the First Leg started nervously, then that cannot happen in the Second. A 1 – 0 advantage is a good lead to protect in many respects, no prospect of having to breakdown an obstinate defence, facing exit from the competition on the away goals rule. That said, concede the first goal and a second can quite easily follow, especially if the atmosphere can be described as, to use an overworked word, “hostile”.
Which is where the enforced change that “Raging Bull” Wenger must make could work to his advantage. The knee injury suffered by Senderos is more serious than first thought, by me at least, and has precluded his travelling with the squad. An unfortunate even in his career as he has matured well this season – like a young Tony Adams, he is prone to the odd howler but holds his own for the most part. There is little doubt though that in Sol Campbell there is a more than adequate deputy. It seems strange to call Sol that, perhaps recognition of the strides Senderos has taken? However, despite the well-documented events of the West Ham game, Campbell is still one of the best centre halves in European football at the moment. Still possessing pace to recover positions, he brings a wealth of experience attained at the top level – two World Cups and European Championships for England, Semi Finals for Arsenal and Tottenham – that should help to calm the defence if needed. The flipside of this though, is that Campbell is a prime example of a confidence footballer. When things go well, he is a rock, when he plays badly, he can be attrocious. The two are not dependant on the team’s performance – on many occasions in his Arsenal career, the team has not performed well but he has been a rock and it is this Sol Campbell that the team needs tomorrow night.
A welcome addition to the squad is the return of Gael Clichy, returning after an extended injury lay-off. I would be surprised if Raging Bull made two changes to what has otherwise been a reliable defence in Europe but Clichy is a useful substitute to have, allowing Flamini to be deployed further forward should any injury arise to Hleb, Fabregas, Ljungberg or Gilberto.
For the game itself, I do not expect Villarreal to charge forward in search of the opening goal. As such, they will look to contain Arsenal, preventing the counter – attacks from occurring whereever possible. They are in no rush to score, certainly in the first half. For whilst an early goal is desireable from their point of view, it is worth remembering that just one goal could earn them an additional thirty minutes of play. Their problem is that conceding one goal will probably condemn them to the exit door. Do not be fooled by the first leg, for they are a better team than that suggested. It will be a tough encounter but one that previous performances in the Santiago Bernabeu, Amsterdam Arena and Stadio Delle Alpi show Arsenal are capable of winning through to the final. Whether they can rise to the occasion remains to be seen. One thing is certain. Seven Forty Five GMT tomorrow evening cannot come soon enough.
England’s new coach is likely to be announced shortly, with the received wisdom being that it is a straight race between Steve McLaren and Don Coreleone. Given the twists and turns so far in the media’s coverage, it would not be a surprise to see Big Sam be appointed despite the best efforts of the collective wit of the press pack. To my untrained eye, McLaren was dealt a savage blow on Sunday. Not because Middlesbrough lost to West Ham – although this should have damaged him in the press’s eye as he is now only favourite due to his sides upturn in form – but more based on the fact that his club captain thinks he is too inexperienced. The individual in question should not be ignored; Gareth Southgate is an experienced footballer who has seen the highs and lows of the game and puts his points across eloquently. More importantly, if his senior playing deputy does not think he is ready for the job, then it is difficult to see how McLaren can be offered the role. Not that the FA have ever relied on logic in any decision-making process before now. However, The Don is also distancing himself publicly although this is possibly more of a PR exercise for the Portuguese public, so who is left. The only man who has consistently made it clear that he wants the job is Big Sam. Whilst you may think I am flogging a dead horse, at least he has made it clear he is keen to take the step into the breach. For all those who say McLaren has shown tact and diplomacy in his handling of the speculation, the same can be said of Allardyce. Personally, I care not one jot about the diplomacy. I want an England Coach who is prepared to put his heart on his sleeve and come out and say he wants the job. Put him and Stuart Pearce on the touchline and the motivational issue disappears. Pearce would be a good second in command to have and is sure to be an England Manager in the next decade, if his career continues on the same path it currently is.
Enough of this drivel for one day though – Todays Tunes bring back the spirit of the late 70’s with a couple of demos by The Ruts: