FC Porto vs Arsenal: Gunners have little to fear in bid for Champions League glory

FC Porto vs Arsenal: Gunners have little to fear in bid for Champions League glory

Mikel Arteta and his squad are entering uncharted territory, but the knockout stage of the Champions League should hold no fear for Arsenal.

The Gunners are flying right now and go into the first leg of their last-16 tie with Porto on the back of a 5-0 thrashing of Burnley and five Premier League wins on the spin.

They have scored 21 goals on that run and have arrived here in Portugal full of confidence.

At the start of the season, some felt Arsenal might struggle in the Champions League, given their lack of experience at Europe’s top table.

This is Arteta’s first time managing in the competition, while only 11 of his squad had played at this level before this season.

But Arsenal topped their group with a game to spare and are third favourites with the bookmakers to win the trophy at Wembley on June 1.

Beyond Manchester City and Real Madrid, the Gunners should fancy their chances against anyone else still left in the competition. Bayern Munich are in crisis, Paris Saint-Germain are in transition as they prepare for life after Kylian Mbappe and the champions of both Spain and Italy — Barcelona and Napoli — are enduring nightmare seasons. Add in that Liverpool are in the Europa League and it is easy to see why Arsenal are viewed around Europe as genuine contenders, especially if the draw is kind to them.

Arsenal have been handed a winnable last-16 tie against a Porto side who are third in the Portuguese league and seven points behind leaders Benfica.

This was the round Arsenal would come unstuck towards the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign.

The Gunners are aiming to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2010. They were beaten at the last-16 stage on seven consecutive occasions between 2011 and 2017, and did not qualify for the Champions League again until this season.

Only Mohamed Elneny remains from the squad that lost 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich in 2017 and Arteta insists that history is “irrelevant”.

Arsenal have evolved this season into a team which has a new-found defensive solidity and control, which is suited to knockout football.

They have the best defence in the Premier League, are facing fewer shots and conceding fewer chances.

Coupled with that security, Arsenal are a dangerous team going forward if given space on the counter.

Opposition teams in the Premier League tend to sit deep to try to frustrate them, but in Europe this season it has been a different story. Wingers Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli have not been double-marked and have revelled in more space.

Saka is in fine form and will be key to Arsenal’s European dream (REUTERS)
Saka is in fine form and will be key to Arsenal’s European dream (REUTERS)

Saka is in fine form and will be key. He has six goals in five games since the mid-season winter break, which seems to have done wonders for him.

Arteta has done a brilliant job since taking over at Arsenal in 2019, guiding them to FA Cup glory in 2020 and turning them into title contenders.

But in Europe he is yet to have great success. During three seasons in the Europa League, Arsenal never won a knockout game at home, though they did reach the semi-finals in 2021.

The pressure is on Arteta to get the big selection calls right tonight — and his biggest decision is in attack.

His defence picks itself, with calf injuries to Oleksandr Zinchenko and Takehiro Tomiyasu meaning Jakub Kiwior is set to continue at left-back.

But in attack, Arteta has a dilemma. Leandro Trossard has impressed as a false nine in the absence of Gabriel Jesus, who is struggling with a knee problem.

Arteta might be tempted, though, to deploy Kai Havertz as a target man to give Arsenal an outlet.

Havertz has fond memories of the Estadio do Dragao, after scoring the winner there for Chelsea in the Champions League Final against Manchester City in2021.

Wherever he plays, the German will have a key role if Arsenal are to fulfil their European dream this season.