It is the last-chance saloon for Arsenal when they face a
rejuvenated Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie
at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.
For Arsene Wenger's side the game represents their only remaining hope of saving
a season that is threatening to disintegrate around them and to make matters
worse they appear to have caught the Spaniards just when they have rediscovered
their best form.
The Londoners, who impressed in the group stage, have gone into freefall in
recent months and hardly look to be in the best shape to face up to their
first-ever meeting with the nine-times European champions.
They are out of both English cups and are struggling in fifth place in the
league, 25 points behind runaway leaders Chelsea.
It is unknown territory for Wenger, who after finishing third in his arrival
season in 1996/97 has led Arsenal to a top two finish every year since.
The bad news for Wenger is that anything beyond the Champions League
quarter-finals is also unknown and he is only just about on nodding terms with
the last eight after regular frustrations in Europe's elite competition.
A taxing injury list, a string of poor results and some off-field distractions
complete a miserable picture for the Frenchman going into the club's biggest
game of the season.
"At the moment we are struggling a little from a confidence problem," Wenger
said after a late 1-0 defeat at Liverpool on Tuesday, Arsenal's seventh away
loss of the season.
Sol Campbell, who went missing for several days after being substituted in a 3-2
home defeat by West Ham United two weeks ago, is absent injured and though Kolo
Toure is back from the African Nations Cup the defence remains lightweight.
As so often before, Arsenal's hopes appear to depend on Thierry Henry - but with
the club captain also perhaps distracted by daily media speculation about his
future it is a lot to ask of the France striker.
As far as who is going to partner him, Jose Antonio Reyes remains a doubt with
an ankle injury, Dennis Bergkamp says he is prepared to travel by road and sea
while 16-year-old Theo Walcott could be given an incredible debut, possibly off
Real's season has been the mirror image of Arsenal's, a poor start giving way to
a series of confident displays under new coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro.
They chalked up their sixth league win in a row with an easy 3-0 victory over
struggling Alaves on Saturday and received a further boost with the return to
action of skipper Raul after three months out because of a serious knee injury.
Although Real they went out of the King's Cup last week spirits were raised by
their storming, but ultimately futile, 4-0 win over Real Zaragoza in which they
narrowly failed to overturn a 6-1 first-leg deficit.
Ronaldo is set to make his first start for Real in a Champions League match this
season and Robinho has hit a rich vein of scoring form, notching up his 11th
goal of the season in all competitions against Alaves.
If Raul plays he will become the first player to appear in 100 Champions League
games - he is the competition's all-time leader scorer with 51.
The Arsenal match will be particularly special for English duo David Beckham and
Jonathan Woodgate, marking as it does their first games against Premier League
opposition since they moved to Spain.
"If this team plays to its full potential then we can be devastating and, if we
do that, hopefully we'll get a good result and beat Arsenal," Beckham said on
Real Madrid: 1-Iker Casillas, 11-Cicinho, 4-Sergio Ramos, 18-Jonathan Woodgate,
3-Roberto Carlos; 16-Thomas Gravesen; 23-David Beckham, 5-Zinedine Zidane,
14-Guti, 10-Robinho; 9-Ronaldo
Arsenal: 1-Jan Lehmann; 27-Emmanuel Eboue , 28-Kolo Toure, 20-Philippe Senderos,
16-Matheiu Flamini; 7-Robert Pires, 19-Gilberto, 15-Cesc Fabregas, 8-Freddie
Ljungberg; 14-Thierry Henry, 9-Jose Antonio Reyes/11-Robin van Persie.
Referee: Stefano Farina (Italy)