Both teams suffered domestic defeats at the weekend and while Arsenal remained top of the Premier League despite their 3-2 loss at Southampton, Roma’s 3-0 defeat at Parma leaves Fabio Capello’s side in 9th spot, 9 points off the pace in Serie A. In fact, were it not for some impressive performances in Europe this season, most notably a 1-0 win at Real Madrid, the pressure on Capello would be growing.
Capello will be pleased to see talismanic skipper Francesco Totti return from injury to face the Gunners. Also, Marco Delvecchio, who missed the Parma defeat beacuse of a muscle strain, is fit to play, while Cafu and Tommasi will take undergo late fitness tests before Capello decides on his starting eleven.
For Arsenal, Arsene Wenger must cope without Lauren, Keown, Parlour and Kanu, while Luzhny is also a doubt, so squad player Volz has been called up. The non-flying Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp, has not travelled, so Sylvain Wiltord will accompany Thierry Henry in attack, leaving a place for the fit-again Robert Pires in midfield. Brazilian midfielder Gilberto, who was rested against Southampton, is expected to return at the expense of compatriot Edu.
In the tightest of groups that also contains Ajax and Valencia, Capello is aware that every match could be significant.
“Every game will be crucial in this round but with the determination we are capable of, we can take on anyone,” Capello said.
“We’ll show respect but not fear – that doesn’t exist.”
“They are strong physicallyand technically and can change the rhythm of their game. Like Real Madrid they play attacking players behind a single striker, but they play more direct football.”
Arsene Wenger,was equally complimenatary about Roma, stating: “Roma are strong, very creative and well balanced and we expect them to play an attacking game, but it’s very important for us to earn points away from home in this round.”
After an impressive start to the season, Arsenal’s recent form has been erratic to say the least – 3 Premier League defeats and two in Europe. Therefore Wenger will probably be happy with a draw tonight, although the absence of Bergkamp, often the fulcrum of their attacking moves, is a significant loss.
Valencia v Ajax
Of all the qualifiers from the first stage, Valencia were arguably the most impressive, winning five and drawing one of their six matches and Rafael Benitez’s side certainly look capable of emulating the achievement of his predecessor Hector Cuper who led the club to successive Champions League finals.
In contrast, Ajax somehow sneaked through to the second phase, courtesy of an improbable combination of results in a group in the final set of matches.
Ronald Koeman’s men are doing well at home, topping the Dutch table, three points ahead of PSV, but they will not be relishing encountering aValencia side brimming with confidence.
Koeman paid tonight’s opponents the ultimate compliment by suggesting they are now a better team than either Real Madriid or Barcelona.
“Perhaps Madrid and Barca are better known in Spain but, in my opinion, Valencia are a more complete team,’ said Koeman.
‘They have quality players and play an aggressive game – they go at you from the start.”
“Any points we can pick up away from home will be a bonus,” Koeman admitted.
The former Barcelona player is realsitic about his side’s chances and acknowledges that tonight’s match provides a valuable opportunity for some of his younger players to sample footballl at the highest level.
“It is important in the learning curve for my players that they play against the best teams in Europe,” Koeman said. “I am looking forward to these matches and then we will have a better idea of the qualities of this Ajax side.”
Some welcome news for Koeman though comes in with the absence through injury of Valencia’s playmaker Pablo Aimar. The diminutive Argentinian has been in inspirational form this season, and his withdrawal is a significant blow for Benitez.
Also missingis Aimar’s compatriot Kily Gonzales, who is expecte to be out for three months through injury. However, a third Argentinian Roberto Ayala, returns to the side after being rested at the weekend. Mistawill partner either Juan Sanchez or John Carew up front, with Miguel Angulo coming in for Francisco Rufete
Ajax travelled to Spain with Victor Sikora despite the striker suffering with a hamstring injury and it is unlikely he willl be fit enough to start the game, although a place on the bench cannot be discounted. Henk Timmer, Jelle van Damme and John O’Brien are all missing and defender Nigel de Jong is rated doubtful. On a more positive note, Jari Litmanen is back to full fitness.
Romanian defender Christian Chivu, who has attracted the attention of the continent’s big clubs, could be the key man for Ajax. A composed defender, comfortable on the ball, he will need to be at his best to repel the expected waves of Valencia attacks.