A "different world" is what the much-travelled Arsène Wenger calls it, this far east of London, and the manager of tonight's opponents Shakhtar Donetsk believes that this geography causes problems for his team with referees. The vastly experienced Mircea Lucescu, who was in charge of the Romanian national side almost 30 years ago, will have the home fires burning against Arsenal after stoking the coals last night by claiming: "Fouls committed by 'grandees' and sides from eastern Europe are interpreted differently."
Lucescu went on: "It was the same story when I worked for Besiktas and Galatasaray. I hope the refereeing will be correct tomorrow."
The Shakhtar camp were furious about an admittedly wild challenge by Jack Wilshere early on in their 5-1 defeat at the Emirates a fortnight ago, which did not bring a yellow card. Lucescu went further yesterday in also naming Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky and Marouane Chamakh for "unfair play" and adding: "It is easy to say, as Wenger did, that they want to keep clean sheets in all six matches when the referees make such 'gifts'.
"After three games played, Arsenal were awarded one card, with other sides amassing seven or eight. It proves something."
The coach even harked back to last season's Europa League tie in which Fulham knocked out Shakhtar, the holders, claiming: "The same happened against Barcelona and against Fulham, when there was a 100 per cent penalty against the London side." While doubtless thrilled to be named as "grandees", Fulham may feel they detect a whiff of sour grapes.
Wenger's response to all this was predictably cool. Speaking last night at the fine Donbass Arena, where Shakhtar are unbeaten since its completion 15 months ago, he said: "They are unfair comments. I know Lucescu well as one of my friends, so I'm quite surprised."
Where the two coaches agree is in their belief that the Ukrainian champions and national league leaders will be a tougher proposition than in the previous game, when they had almost given up the game before their substitute Eduardo da Silva on his return to London scored a popular consolation goal. Shakhtar seem certain to start with Eduardo this time, alongside another of their Brazilians, Luiz Adriano. "I do not think Arsenal is stronger than Shakhtar," Lucescu insisted. "We will try to prove it on the pitch."
Wenger agrees. "They are a better side than what they showed at the Emirates. For me they are one of the best sides in Europe. I expect them to have a reaction and response." Arsenal's record in Ukraine – three defeats and a draw from four visits – is bleak, which is one reason why their manager is stamping on any complacency based on his squad's fine current form.
Arsenal have now won five successive games in all competitions, carrying them to second place in the Premier League. Results, and quality of football, have been most impressive of all against European opposition, with Braga, Partizan Belgrade and Shakhtar thumped by a combined margin of 14 goals to two.
With even one more point in the bag, Wenger would have been keen to offer experience to some more of his tyros such as the midfielder Craig Eastmond this evening. As it is, he may have tempted fate after beating West Ham at the weekend by talking of the number of options available to him in that area. The choices have subsequently diminished, with the captain Fabregas absent and Alex Song, Andrei Arshavin and Denilson all missing as well.Reuse content