Buoyant Arsenal ready to finish Villarreal

LONDON - Arsene Wenger can be excused a little smugness as he prepares his Arsenal side for Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg at home to Villarreal as a bleak-looking season has suddenly burst into bloom. Last week's 1-1 draw in Spain makes Arsenal favourites to progress to a semi-final against either holders Manchester United or Porto while on Saturday they face Chelsea in the last four of the FA Cup at Wembley.

Five consecutive Premier League wins have also cemented the Gunners in fourth place in the league after it had looked for most of the season that their place among the top four was under threat.

Add to that the impressive return to fitness of Cesc Fabregas after a long lay-off with a knee injury and the feel-good factor is very much back at the Emirates where Arsenal have never lost in the Champions League.

An alternative view would be that Arsenal's season could disintegrate within the space of four days, which is why Wenger is wary of the threat posed by Villarreal who must score in England for the first time in the Champions League.

A 0-0 draw would be enough for Arsenal thanks to Emmanuel Adebayor's acrobatic equaliser last week but Wenger's young side will not be playing a containing game, especially as they are without defensive rock William Gallas, raiding left back Gael Clichy and first choice keeper Manuel Almunia through injury.

"We have scored that away goal so it could have an importance at the end of the day," Wenger told Arsenal's website.

"I don't believe that we are a team who can play for 0-0, that's not our natural way. If there are five minutes to go and it's 0-0 even goal kicks make you nervous.

"I personally don't expect any weaknesses from them, I expect some strength from us to say, 'listen, we have the opportunity to get to the semi-final at home, let's take it'."


The return of skipper Fabregas to pull Arsenal's midfield strings has provided a massive boost and the timing is perfect.

"He looks to get stronger and stronger from game to game," Wenger said. "I did think he needed a breather [earlier in the campaign]. Maybe it was too long for my taste but it will help him to finish the season strongly."

While Arsenal's most influential player is back, Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini must do without injured midfielder Marcos Senna who scored a stunning opener in the first leg.

He will also need to reverse a mini-slump that has seen them slip out of the Champions League qualification slots after a 2-0 defeat by Malaga in the Primera Liga on Saturday.

The memory of their tight 2006 semi-final defeat by Arsenal, however, will mean motivation is not a problem.

"It isn't difficult to find the motivation for these types of games, and it does not depend on the weekend's result. Playing for a place in the Champions League semi-finals is sufficient motivation," said Pellegrini.

Probable teams:

Arsenal: 21-Lukasz Fabianski; 3-Bacary Sagna, 5-Kolo Toure, 20-Johan Djourou, 18-Mikael Silvestre; 15-Denilson, 17-Alex Song, 4-Cesc Fabregas, 14-Theo Walcott; 8-Samir Nasri; 25-Emmanuel Adebayor