The high-stakes games, which define seasons and futures, are meant to come in April not August. And yet Arsenal, through little fault of their own, find themselves with far too much on the line against Besiktas at the Emirates this evening, knowing that they need to win.
The Champions League play-off match is a more lucrative game than any that will be played for the next nine months, guaranteeing £25m for participation in the group stage. Arsenal have played at that stage for the last 16 years and, as Arsène Wenger made clear yesterday, the prestige at stake matters at least as much as the money.
“For us it is very important,” said the Arsenal manager at his pre-match press conference. “We want to play at the top level, at international level, so it is a very important game. More on the sporting side than the financial side. The task is clear, and we know we can do it. So let’s do it.”
Arsenal’s task, of course, is to win. Their 0-0 draw in Istanbul last week means that a score draw would knock them out, and they know that they have to play better this evening than they did at the Olympic Stadium, on Istanbul’s western outskirts.
“It was one of our first games this season so the technical side of our game can improve from that performance,” admitted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, likely to be drafted into midfield this evening to fill the gaps left by Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta. “It was a tough pitch to play on, but no excuses. We should have passed the ball better than we did. We have to improve the speed at which we move the ball. The fluidity wasn’t at the highest. It wasn’t a terrible performance, but we are capable of more.”
How Arsenal could replace Olivier Giroud
How Arsenal could replace Olivier Giroud
1/9 Wilfried Bony
The Swansea striker had an impressive first season in Wales scoring 16 goals in the Premier League and 25 in all competitions. He has the strength and pace to operate as a lone striker and is technically good enough to fit in at Arsenal. he is believed to want a move to a bigger club and Swansea previously said they wouldn't stand in his way, with an offer of around £16m reported to be enough.
2/9 Radamel Falcao
The best attainable No 9 in European football, Radamel Falcao has been a target for Real Madrid all summer and Arsenal could beat them to the Monaco player’s signature. Although he missed most of the year – and the World Cup finals – with a knee ligament injury, Arsenal could sign the Colombian on loan, though they would not get much change from £20m in that deal.
3/9 Marco Reus
The German's release clause is a well known staple of this transfer window - Reus is available for a cut-price £20m next year. This could mean the versatile young star is available for a bit more now, with Borussia Dortmund perhaps keen to cash in. However recent history shows they are happy to keep their players to be stronger now. Robert Lewandowski stayed an extra season before moving on a free to Bayern Munich this summer.
4/9 Edinson Cavani
The Uruguayan was heavily linked with a move to Arsenal or Chelsea earlier this summer and his agent even said Cavani was interested in coming to England. He was reported to be unhappy at playing second fiddle to Zlatan Ibrahimovic but those fears seemed to have been allayed. He is truly world class and scored 25 goals last season, but he will not be cheap and with Giroud expected to be out before the turn of the year it may be a bit of a stretch to have both of these men in the squad.
5/9 Julian Draxler
Julian Draxler was the talk of the town in January when Arsenal made a reported £37m bid for the German. That mammoth bid, Draxler admitted, went to the 20-year-old's head and his form dipped - he scored just six goals in all competitions last year. But the youngster is still clearly talented and should find his form again, while it will not take anywhere near that previous price to seal a deal this time.
6/9 Theo Walcott
Since Arsene Wenger first started playing Theo Walcott on the right pundits have opined that he will eventually move back into a central role. Now 25, no such move has taken place. Walcott had a great year in 2012-13 scoring 21 goals in all competitions but managed less than 20 appearances last term. He is due back in mid-September and could, finally, see a role as Arsenal's main man.
7/9 Lukas Podolski
The popular German has been linked with a move to either Juventus or back to Germany but Arsene Wenger may now decide to put that move on hold. He is an excellent finisher and has a good scoring record in his two years at the club, with 28 goals from 69 matches. However, when he has played through the middle he has neither the pace nor the strength to really operate as a lone striker.
8/9 Alexis Sanchez
Impressed for Barcelona when played as a 'false 9' last season, Sanchez was terrible at Goodison Park in a similar position and was hauled off after 45 minutes. It will take time for the little Chilean to get used to the physicality of the Premier League, but he has the technical ability to succeed. However, a role as a lone striker may be too much in the early stages of his Arsneal career - he should be given more time to settle in.
9/9 Yaya Sanogo
Yet to score a goal for the club in 15 senior matches, Sanogo managed to bag four in a pre-season friendly against Monaco. The youngster is a gifted athlete but very raw technically, and it would be a mistake for Wenger to consider him adequate cover for Giroud.
The problem is that Arsenal will have to do more with less. Arteta is missing with an ankle injury sustained after a heavy tackle from Demba Ba in Istanbul last week. Ramsey is suspended after picking up two bookings as Arsenal tried to stem the tide in the first leg. Those are Arsenal’s two most important midfielders and the team certainly looks less solid without them. With no Olivier Giroud for the next four months, Alexis Sanchez is likely to play up front.
Mathieu Flamini and Jack Wilshere will have a difficult evening, especially with Besiktas’s best player, the Canadian midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, back in the side, having missed the first leg through injury. Along with the former Arsenal youngster Oguzhan Ozyakup and Austrian Veli Kavlak they should be able to cause Arsenal problems, on a slick pitch that will help the visitors almost as much as the hosts.
Wenger said that his remodelled midfield must show the right balance of skill and fight to keep Arsenal dominant throughout the match. “We will have to be ready for a battle in midfield because they gave us one [last week],” Wenger said. “As Alex told you, we like to move the ball quicker than we did in the first game. We are technically equipped to do it, but we need to defend well together and therefore you need to be ready for the battle.”
It is rather unfortunate for Arsenal to be in this position so early into the season, especially when they have begun the season acceptably well. There were important wins – the first of which yielded a trophy (the Community Shield) – and then two very creditable draws. Merseyside and Istanbul are some way apart but they are both port cities that take their football very seriously, and Everton and Besiktas are two very useful sides.
And yet, despite all that, Arsenal find themselves in a position that will take some escaping from. These games have never caused Arsenal much trouble in the past – they had won all six play-offs and all 12 matches in which they had been involved before the 0-0 draw last week.
Always having had a first-leg lead, then, Arsenal are on new territory now. The closest comparison is with Udinese, three years ago, when Arsenal won just 1-0 at the Emirates and had to go to Udine, in the draining heat, and save a penalty before winning the game in the second half.
“The second leg was very hot, unbelievably hot,” Wenger said, recalling it as their hardest play-off game. “They missed a penalty, they missed chances. It is always a difficult occasion. It was a dramatic game and it was tough.”
Arsenal have improved since then – that was the same week as the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United – but all of their recent gains, of adding two world-class players in Mesut Özil and Sanchez, of winning the FA Cup and the Community Shield this summer, will be tested and re-evaluated this evening, as Arsenal show if their mentality has developed or not.
Slaven Bilic, of course, talked up Arsenal last night at his own press conference at the Emirates. Repeatedly referring to them as one of the biggest sides in the world, the Besiktas manager massaged expectations – “we are not favourites, they are favourites, they are Arsenal” – and further increased the size of the scalp he might take tonight.
“It is a big game for them but a big game for us as well,” said Bilic, already a hero to the Besiktas fans. “We showed from our first-leg performance that we are capable of giving them a game. We are full of hope for tomorrow, and that we play on such a huge ground and a great stadium, against one of the biggest clubs in the world on their home soil. We have a dream and we have a hope, but it is a plan as well, and we are going to do everything to fulfil it.”
Wenger, of course, has his own plan. And he has home advantage, better and more experienced players and a long track record of success in the Champions League. “Experience plays a big part,” as Wenger said, “and we can use that tomorrow, but what is more important is putting in a good, strong performance.” While the away-goal threat lingers, they will certainly need to.
Gunners’ casualty list: Wenger’s recent woes
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Aug 2013)
Winger sat out five months with knee injury picked up against Aston Villa.
Lukas Podolski (Aug 2013)
Unavailable for four months owing to hamstring complaint.
Santi Cazorla (Sept 2013)
Suffered foot injury in training and was out for a month.
Aaron Ramsey (Dec 2013)
Missed three and a half months last season after straining thigh at West Ham.
Theo Walcott (Jan 2014)
Has been out for seven months since suffering knee injury against Spurs.
Jack Wilshere (Mar 2014)
Midfielder broke foot playing for England against Denmark and missed two months of action.
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