HAVING spent most of the season in the wilderness, Eyal Berkovic is relishing the chance handed to him by Graeme Souness at Blackburn Rovers.
The Ewood Park manager rescued him from Celtic, where he had become a bit-part player under Martin O’Neill. Some injudicious comments about his non-selection for the first team hardly helped Berkovic’s cause and when Souness offered a lifeline in the form of a loan deal, the midfielder jumped at it.
The pair work well together - Souness brought Berkovic to Britain when the Scot managed Southampton - and today at Highbury they have the chance to pit their wits against Arsene Wenger’s multi-national, multi-talented Arsenal in the FA Cup.
The Division 1 side go into the quarter-final tie with just two defeats in 24 games stretching back to last November and the feeling in Lancashire is an upset is a distinct possibility.
Much will depend on how Berkovic performs. The gifted Israeli was outstanding in the win against Bolton in Wednesday’s fifth round replay.
It will not be Arsenal’s first brush with a Berkovic this season, though, Eyal’s younger brother Nir having trained with one of their youth teams for a few months, and you can be rest assured that Eyal will be doing his best to ensure that the family name is on every Gunner’s lips this afternoon.
"We have nothing to be scared of," he said. "Arsenal are a good team but we also have good players at Blackburn. We have enough quality to get a result. We are playing with confidence and there’s no reason we cannot pull off a shock."
England Under-21 midfielder David Dunn is set to return for Rovers, having missed the Bolton game due to a slight toe injury. Henning Berg and John Curtis were rested for that game but both are back in the squad.
Souness, who led Liverpool to the FA Cup in 1992, maintains that promotion is the priority. But he is relishing the prospect of being back on the big stage - not just today but next term.
"This is how we want it to be every week, playing top teams in packed stadiums," he said. "Arsenal are the second best team in the country, with a great tradition. You don’t get to this stage of the cup and not want to win it.
"It is a two-horse race tomorrow and in that situation you must have a chance. It will be a great day out for everybody."
Wenger has given Arsenal a major boost ahead clash by insisting there is now "no reason" why he would not sign a new contract this summer. Wenger, who has played down reports linking him with moves to manage Japan or Barcelona, is contracted to the Gunners until next summer. He had questioned if he would stay in club management if the solution to the transfer system conundrum resulted in players being able to walk out at the drop of a hat.
Wenger still has some concerns over the compromise deal, especially with the players’ union threatening legal action and the prospect of some players walking out at the end of a season and only being banned for four months.
However, while he knows it will lead to almost permanent negotiations, he accepts the deal is "workable" and that "the rules will lead to less stability than at present but more stability than we had feared".
So, although Wenger is not willing to sign up to the extended new contract Arsenal want to offer him just yet, he seems to be moving in that direction.
"No matter what happens, I’m at Arsenal until 2002 and why not for longer? There is no reason to change and no reason for me to leave," he declared.
Asked if he had made a firm decision on his future, Wenger added: "At the moment, no, I am just focused on the games.
"My main importance is to help the team win the next game and, in any case, I am contracted to 2002. I said that if the rules went to the extreme, meaning players could leave every three months, I wouldn’t be in the job anymore. But that hasn’t been done."
Asked if he would, in theory, sign a new deal this summer if conditions remained the same as now, he replied: "Exactly, that’s no problem."
Wenger, who did leave himself some room for manoeuvre, added: "I also accept I have to perform and produce. At the moment, we have a very busy schedule and, as a manager, when you have 18 months to go, a new contract is not the most important thing for the club."
Arsenal will be without Kanu as the striker is on international duty with Nigeria. Martin Keown (knee), Edu (hamstring) and Ray Parlour (hamstring) are all ruled out through injury.
An X-ray showed Thierry Henry had no major problem after a knock in the midweek Champions League win against Spartak Moscow, but he will still have a late fitness test.