Arsène Wenger has warned his Arsenal players of the intense physical test of playing Besiktas here in Istanbul tonight in the Champions League before returning to face Everton at Goodison Park on Saturday evening.
London to Istanbul is a long enough journey as it is without yesterday evening’s confusion over whether Arsenal were flying into Ataturk or Sabiha Gokcen airports – and where their pre-match press conference would be held, at which Wenger admitted that his players would face a difficult run of three games in just over a week, ending in the home second leg against the Turkish side a week tomorrow.
“It’s a big test,” Wenger said at the Olympic Stadium. “We had a short preparation, and we know that in one week we have three big games. Besiktas home and away, and Everton in between. Every challenge is different and beating a Turkish team away from home is very difficult but we want to perform at our best. Besiktas is on the back of a good result against Feyenoord, We’re on our toes and want to produce a good result.”
Arsenal go into the game with two first-choice defenders missing. Kieran Gibbs has a hamstring problem, sustained in Saturday’s defeat of Crystal Palace, and “will be out for three to four weeks”. Per Mertesacker, still regaining fitness after the World Cup, has not travelled to Turkey. “He has recovered quite well,” Wenger said of the Germany centre-half, “there shouldn’t be a problem.”
Winning these play-off games has never been too difficult for Arsenal in the past. They have won all 12 matches they have been involved in, against Dynamo Zagreb, Sparta Prague, Twente, Celtic, Udinese and Fenerbahce, ensuring 14 consecutive seasons in the Champions League group stage.
Wenger refused to take that record of success as evidence that tonight would be easy. “I have a good experience in the Champions League,” he said, before predicting a difficult tie. “I know you have to be pragmatic and realistic and just go game by game. First we have to qualify. It’s a very difficult task and we know we have two difficult games. Before speaking about anything else we know we have to put in two big performances against Besiktas.”
Some of those play-off victories were harder won than others but the most consequential game was in Udine in 2011, when a rather flimsy Arsenal squad gave so much in victory, in the late-summer heat, that they were beaten 8-2 by Manchester United days later, the scale of that defeat casting a shadow over the whole 2011-12 season.
A precise repeat of 2011 is certainly unlikely this week – Arsenal are a far stronger, more resilient side than they were three years ago, but nevertheless they would like to take a side as fresh as possible to Everton, one of their hardest games of the season.
The issue, then, is with the travelling and the physical strain as much as it is the opposition itself.
The performance against Crystal Palace at the Emirates on Saturday evening, when they needed Aaron Ramsey’s added-time goal to win the game, shows that Arsenal, like many teams, are still reaching for fitness. Mathieu Flamini is likely to come in, to add experience and muscle in midfield. Spanish teenage right-back Hector Bellerin has travelled with the squad, as have Ignasi Miquel and Abou Diaby.
Arsenal managed last season to overcome Fenerbahce in their ferocious Sukru Saracoglu stadium, winning comfortably 3-0 in the end, but they will not suffer quite the same atmospheric threat this year. Besiktas’s city-centre ground is being rebuilt so the game is being played at the Olympic Stadium on the western edge of Istanbul, although Wenger tried to play down the differences between the two occasions.
“What we’ve learnt is that we started strong last year and played our game with good determination,” he recalled. “We’ll try to do that again. It doesn’t matter that the game is not in Besiktas’s stadium. The people who will come out tomorrow will support Besiktas.”
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