Aragones in Arsenal firing line
There is no need for added heat when it comes to a contest away to Fenerbahce, but Arsenal will tonight face a side coached by the man who once called their former captain Thierry Henry "a black s**t".
Luis Aragones, now 70, protested against being denounced as a racist, and apologised publicly, if not privately, to Henry for what he said back in 2004. Yesterday, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said he had forgiven Aragones – but only after he had canvassed the opinion of those who had played under him, including the Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o.
"I have spoken to him [Aragones] since," Wenger confirmed. "It was an incident inside a training session on a football pitch where you can sometimes go over-board. I believe that having spoken to many players, like Eto'o, everybody came out for him and that is not racist at all. I put it down to a verbal incident but not the deep thinking of Aragones."
Even though the Spaniard is fresh from leading his country to the Euro 2008 title last summer it is hard, for many, not to link him first with his comment, made to the former Arsenal striker Jose Antonio Reyes, rather than his achievement. It may, therefore, delight Arsenal supporters to know that he has struggled with his new job. The pressure is on, with his team floundering in 10th place in the Turkish league, after four defeats in their opening six league games, and there are murmurings of player discontent and accusations that he has failed to adapt to Turkish life. Not surprising given Aragones has never worked outside Spain before and is into his eighth decade.
Into this backdrop flew Arsenal last night. They arrived, as is their custom, late but know that Group G will be theirs if they can engineer a victory against a side which has failed, so far, in this competition this season to match the heights of the last campaign when they won five home games, beating Chelsea and Internazionale along the way, before exiting at the quarter-final stage. After two matches Fenerbahce have just one point from a dismal goalless home draw against Dynamo Kiev.
It will be like facing a wounded animal for Wenger's side – in a bear-pit of a stadium even if the Sukru Saracoglu isn't quite as intimidating as it used to be – and there is a catch. Arsenal arrived without three-quarters of their first-choice defence. Kolo Touré's shoulder, having strained ligaments against Everton at the weekend, is of greatest concern and neither he, nor William Gallas nor Bacary Sagna travelled to Turkey. Johan Djourou, along with Nicklas Bendtner, returns to the squad after injury but Wenger will go with the defence that finished against Everton, which means Alex Song at centre-back. It also means a huge amount of responsibility for Mikaël Silvestre who started his first match of the season on Saturday and now plays again just four days later. "He has the experience and has played, I believe, on every single pitch in Europe," Wenger said. "He's a very professional guy and very calm and I'm confident he will be the guide of the back four."
Silvestre will need to be, especially as Arsenal have conceded eight goals in four European away games. "Fenerbahce have quality," Wenger added. "They have top-class players in every position and a lot of players who are dangerous going forward. So it's a big challenge for us and we'll have to defend very well against a team like that."
Manuel Almunia will captain Arsenal because it is still deemed too early for Cesc Fabregas to assume that responsibility but, as the Fenerbahce striker, and fellow Spaniard, Daniel Guiza put it yesterday, there is no doubt that the midfielder is the "leader" of the team.
There is another, emerging, force. Theo Walcott. One of the most intriguing sub-plots of the encounter is likely to be the way that 35-year-old Brazilian left-back Roberto Carlos attempts to stop Walcott, 19 and jet-heeled, from skipping past him. Carlos knows his side have to perform. "We've beaten Chelsea at home [last season]. This time, we will make it up to the fans that we have upset." Hopefully for Arsenal, Walcott will not be daunted by the match-up or the atmosphere – unlikely given his achievements at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb for England – while Wenger is confident that none of his young charges will be overawed. "It's a unique place for me, a special city," he said. "But it's very tough."
Wenger rested Walcott, for the first-half at least, against Everton but such is his importance that he was called from the bench to help turn things around in the second-half. Walcott chose to take over Henry's No 14 shirt and has also, modestly, started to take on his talismanic qualities, too. Maybe it would be appropriate if he consigned Aragones to another loss.