PARIS: Both Arsenal and Valencia clash today desperately seeking to land the knockout blow to either’s Champions League hopes and also revive their flagging form.
Valencia, two-time finalists, have not won any of their last six matches both in the domestic title race and the Champions League, leaving them facing an uphill task to retain their Spanish crown.
Arsenal’s previous dominance in England has taken a knock being held 2-2 by Chelsea in the FA Cup followed by their first defeat since December, a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Blackburn in the Premier League last Saturday.
Sandwiched in between was their third successive draw in the Champions league at home to AS Roma in Group B leaving them needing a point from their trip to Spain while Valencia effectively need to win to progress.
In the tightest group of the second phase AS Roma can even make the last eight and complete a remarkable comeback after losing their first three matches if they beat Ajax and the other match ends in a draw.
Ajax need a draw to progress as they top the group with Arsenal on seven points.
Group A has just one place up for grabs with Barcelona already qualified as they head to Newcastle to face one of their former managers Bobby Robson, who twice this season has masterminded a remarkable turnaround in the two group phases.
However with Italian giants Inter Milan a point ahead and facing pointless Bayer Leverkusen, a shadow of the side that reached last season's final, even victory cannot guarantee the Magpies a place in the last eight.
Valencia have not lost heart despite their recent woeful run of form and John Carew, their goal-scoring hero from the previous time they hosted Arsenal which ended in a 1-0 victory, is confident that they can prevail.
“We are going to have to put our heart and soul into this game but there is no reason why we cannot beat Arsenal again,” Carew said.
The lanky Norwegian forward must be licking his lips at the thought of facing a much weakened Arsenal defence who are sure to be without Martin Keown and probably England keeper David Seaman and Sol Campbell.
With the improvised partnership of Frenchman Pascal Cygan and Brazil World Cup winning defensive midfielder Gilberto Silva found wanting against the Blackburn attack, Igor Stepanovs looks set for a rare appearance.
“This team has shown strength in the past and will do so again in the future. I feel that the players will respond in the next game,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
However with several complaining of fatigue and leading scorer Thierry Henry appearing unusually tetchy in recent matches Valencia may well be meeting the Gunners at the right moment.
For Roma boss Fabio Capello the Champions League remains the only viable target for the rest of the season and failure to make the last eight will represent a dramatic fall from grace for their handler, who only two years ago was hailed a hero for delivering the Serie A title.
While bizarrely the death of legendary Italian actor Alberto Sordi late last month prompted their best run of form with talismanic skipper Francesco Totti declaring they would win the Champions League for their most famous fan, it hit the buffers again on Sunday with the 1-0 defeat by Perugia.
However if they are to honour Totti’s promise they will have to do it without him because he is suspended following his sending-off last week for felling Keown, which was slammed by Capello for the Englishman’s acting skills.
Capello, though, knows how much is riding on making the last eight for the club more than for himself.
“If we go through it would give back the enthusiasm that has been missing from the squad this year and keep the president happy.
“If the president does not invest in the club we can say goodbye to our ambitions.
“To make it through to the quarter-finals would be impressive with a capital ‘I'.”
Ajax have performed above themselves in the second round phase with largely a young side and will be boosted by the return of highly-regarded Romanian defender Christian Chivu.
However the Dutch champions, who last won the Champions League in 1995, could be without leading striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who ironically is a target for Roma should they make the last eight and club president Franco Sensi releases funds for next season.
Newcastle have been hit by the groin injury to experienced Welsh midfielder Gary Speed which has ruled him out though fiery French winger Laurent Robert is expected to return against what the home side must hope is a Barcelona side already with one eye on their last eight spot.
Newcastle’s star striker Alan Shearer is hoping to give the home fans a night to remember.
“This is one of the most important games of my career,” the 31-year-old admitted.
“I am just hoping that we can deliver one of the great nights in Newcastle’s history,” added Shearer, who has scored five times in the Champions League this season.
Inter for their part are struggling with their strikers as both Alvaro Recoba and Christian Vieri are suspended so Nigerian youngster Obafemi Martins could well start up front alongside Turkish international Emre Belozoglu with the option of Hernan Crespo coming off the bench after recovering from a thigh strain. – AFP