European prospects

Thierry Henry-AP

Arsenal, by February, should have Thierry Henry fit and incisive again but one only hopes that Wenger won't persist in using him up front on his own, a role which is anything but grateful to the Frenchman.

It's quite a long time till February, when hostilities resume in the European Champions Cup, but certain forecasts may be made. All four of the English contestants are through to the second knock-out round and of these, three must be strongly favoured to come through. The fourth, less surely placed, is Liverpool who, of course, are the most recent winners of the trophy. They meet Barcelona, recently beaten in Japan in the World Club Cup final by Brazil's International of Porto Alegre, 1-0. If Barcelona are favourites to survive, it must be only by a narrow margin, for their form this season has been anything but consistently impressive.

This surely has much to do with the injury to the powerful striker Samuel Eto'o whose thrust, pace and goals have been badly missed. If, as they just hope, he is fully fit and active by the time those games come round in February, then the whole picture changes. And we would doubtless see a more effective Ronaldinho, whose form this season has been unpredictable.

So, for that matter, has been Liverpool's, above all, away from home where, at last, they managed an easy win on the ground of an ailing Charlton Athletic team. One of their chief problems is surely the erratic choices of their manager, Rafael Benitez, who despite their success in the European Final in Istanbul — or perhaps because of its very nature — has yet to convince me as a tactician.

Far too often this season has he stuck his most dynamic and influential midfielder, Steven Gerrard, out on the flank; even to the extent, when his forceful central midfield man Sissoko was injured, of keeping Gerrard marginalised at Arsenal and disastrously using the Dutch winger, Zenden, in a central role.

With such attackers as the speedy and penetrative Craig Bellamy, and Holland's blond Dirk Kuyt available, not to mention lanky Peter Crouch and that gifted young winger, Jermaine Pennant, unplayable on his day — as his former manager at Birmingham, Steve Bruce, once said — Liverpool has the capacity to improve; always supposing Benitez doesn't have one of his strategic rushes of blood to the head.

But what of Wenger, what of Arsenal? On the face of it the Gunners should not be overtaxed by PSV Eindhoven though it would be mistaken to place too much emphasis on PSV's inept performance in their last qualifying game when they lost at home 3-1 to Bordeaux and looked embarrassingly open in defence. It was a result without significance, since PSV were already home and dry. But without that splendid South Korean winger, Park Ji Sung, whom they sold to Manchester United in the summer, their attack doesn't carry the same threat. Even if his partner on the flank, the dashing young Peruvian, Jefferson Farfan, is still a force in their attack, and their leading scorer this season.

Wenger will retain anything but happy memories of the 36-year-old Dutch midfielder, Philip Cocu who, playing for Barcelona at Wembley against the Gunners in this competition eight years ago, blatantly flung himself over the leg of Tony Adams to obtain an injury penalty which, in the opinion of Wenger, not only got Barca the first goal but influenced the whole game and their victory, 4-2.

Arsenal, by February, should have Thierry Henry fit and incisive again but one only hopes that Wenger won't persist in using him up front on his own, a role which is anything but grateful to the Frenchman. Wenger himself has had an erratic season. His lamentable behaviour on the touchline when West Ham's Alan Pardew went into ecstasies over his team's winning goal at Upton Park has recently brought Wenger a �10,000 fine. More recently, he was in trouble again, though furiously protesting his innocence, after disputing the free kick given against the Gunners at home to Portsmouth which led to a goal. Yet television showed the decision to be legitimate.

After the match, when Arsenal, fragile in defence, went two goals down, and saved the draw only after Wenger belatedly took off the French striker Jeremie Aliadiere, usually kept in cold storage, and put on Togo's Emmanuel Abedayor, who'd been in outstanding form, Wenger announced, bizarrely, "We had to show them we are a special team. I can't praise my players enough. We showed how good we are."

Which made as little sense as his declaration that Arsenal had played their best football ever in a 0-0 home draw in the European Cup against CSKA Moscow when they had indeed dominated the game, making a host of chances, only, and sometimes inexplicably, to miss every one of them. Scoring goals, Wenger seemed to forget, is surely the ultimate object of the game. But when not only Henry but that splendidly versatile Czech midfielder, Tomas Rosicky, is active again, Arsenal should be too good for PSV.

But will Lille, on the face of it the underdogs, bark and bite again against Manchester United, whom they so spectacularly knocked out of the competition only last season, drawing 0-0 at Old Trafford, winning 1-0 at home? A bitter Alex Ferguson refused to shake hands with the Lille manager Claude Puel, seemingly enraged by Lille's robust methods. But United had only themselves surely to blame. Now with Rooney, Giggs and Ronaldo in vein, they will surely at least be able to score.

Ironically, Jose Mourinho, manager of Chelsea, faces the club he inspired to the European title, in Porto; now unrecognisable in make-up from the team he knew. Shevchenko and Ballack have so far been expensive failures but Drogba, Robben, Essien and co. should reign supreme.