Arsenal’s Champions League fate rests on their ability to best Turkish club Besiktas over 90 minutes in North London. Even a score draw would see them tumble out at the qualifying stage for the first ever time.
Typically, home legs in the qualifying stages have been relaxing affairs for the Gunners, save for a narrow first leg squeeze against Udinese in 2011. There is likely to be an air of trepidation around the stadium unless the home side score early.
Besiktas boss Slaven Bilic has been fairly bullish in his assessment of the tie over the two legs, proclaiming after last week’s 0-0 draw in Istanbul that his team ‘would not go to London to take selfies with Arsenal players on the pitch.’
Upping the rhetoric, Bilic sounded positively Churchillian when he said that his side, ‘have a hope, a dream, which is more important than a plan.’ For Arsene Wenger, his nights will have been made a little more sleepless with his principal goal threats- Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, all unavailable.
As well as this, one of his calming influences in the lego haired mould of captain Mikel Arteta will be missing. Arsenal have struggled to find balance so far this season and there will be an even greater air of unfamiliarity about the side he puts out on Wednesday evening.
I think his intention was to gradually turn Alexis into a number 9 option, possibly with the choice of he and Walcott swapping the centre forward / right wing position during games much in the manner that Henry and Pires / Ljungberg did to such great effect in yesteryear.
However, his preference would surely be to blend such an option in slowly as the team becomes acclimatised to Alexis’ movement all across the front line. With Giroud’s injury looking semi serious, that experiment may be expedited from Plan B to Plan A.
Arsene Wenger was subjected to a flurry of questions about transfers, but amidst the narrative, he emphasised how important progression into the group stages is for his Arsenal side.
‘It`s a very important game. We want to play on the top level. It`s more important on the sporting side than the financial side.
‘Experience plays a big part. We have big experience in the Champions League of playing high pressure games and we can use that.
‘This group is strong and mentally prepared and ready for the fight. What`s most important is that we go out and play at our best.
‘The task is clear, we want to win the game at home. It’s the Champions League so it will be a thriller because [Besiktas] are a good side.’
‘Nothing is unthinkable – it (not qualifying for the group stage) has happened to 99% of all the big clubs in Europe.
‘But we want to be in there and we think we have the potential to do it. The task is clear and we know we can do it. So let’s do it.’
Besiktas manager Slaven Bilic, who will serve a touchline ban due to his antics in the first leg, recognises that his side aren’t favourites, but believes they can complete a shock in North London.
‘We’ll play a big match. Already on the first day of the match we knew it was a big test.
‘I am happy with the game in the first leg but I’m not happy with the score. We deserved to win. We have the Champions League dream. Tomorrow we will do our best. ‘
Arsenal Team News:
Arsenal are without Olivier Giroud after he picked up a foot injury in the 2-2 draw with Everton. Arsene Wenger refused to reveal the length of the layoff, but press reports suggest anything between 3-5 months for the Frenchman.
Aaron Ramsey serves a one match suspension after his red card in Istanbul. Mikel Arteta (hamstring), Kieran Gibbs (hamstring), David Ospina (thigh) and Theo Walcott (knee) are out.
However, Yaya Sanogo and Abou Diaby trained with the squad on Tuesday and Lukas Podolski will play despite rumours of an imminent switch to Juventus.
Arsenal (from); Szczesny, Debuchy, Mertesacker (c), Koscielny, Rosicky, Podolski, Wilshere, Özil, Chamberlain, Alexis, Monreal, S.Cazorla, Flamini, Chambers, Sanogo, Diaby, Bellerin, Miquel.
Player to watch: Alexis Sanchez
I think Arsene’s pursuit of Luis Suarez suggests he’s been looking for more flexibility in his frontline and I think he has bought Alexis to try and provide it.
The team however, still need to get used to Alexis’ movements, he likes to move all across the frontline and operate in pockets of space that our most recent centre forwards just haven’t.
There’s a good deal of pressure on Alexis to deliver with Giroud and Ramsey out, he has to carry the threat in an attacking sense. Wednesday night would be a nice time for him to announce his arrival.
Besiktas Team News:
Besiktas will be without Turkish midfielder Necip Uysal, who has an ankle injury.
Besiktas (from); Gonen, Kurtulus, Koybasi, Sivok, Kavlak, Ba, Sahan, Pektamak, Ozyakup, Tore, Franco, Kaya, Frei, Gulum, Tosun, Boral, Zengen (c), Motta, Nukan, Metin.
Player to watch: Oğuzhan Özyakup
An ex Arsenal trainee, Özyakup will be looking to prove a point on the ground where he made a single substitute appearance for Arsenal against Shrewsbury Town in 2011.
Özyakup links Besiktas’ defence and attack and has a nice range of passing. He essentially will be charged with keeping the away side ticking over in the transitions and will play a big part in their counter attacking game plan.
Match Facts & Stats
Arsenal have won all of their Champions League qualifier home ties.
Arsenal have yet to lose to a Turkish side over 90 minutes in European competition.
The Gunners have never conceded at home to Turkish opposition.
The last of Beşiktaş’s five UEFA Champions League group stage campaigns was in 2009/10; Arsenal have featured in the last 16 UEFA Champions League group stages.
Beşiktaş are unbeaten in their last three UEFA Champions League away games, a run that contains a famous 1-0 victory at Manchester United in the 2009/10 group phase.
This is Beşiktaş’s second match in London. The first was a 2-0 triumph over Chelsea as the Black Eagles inflicted the Blues’ first defeat under new owner Roman Abramovich.
Portugal’s Pedro Proença will take charge.
I think Arsenal will overcome their Turkish visitors by two goals to nil. Alexis and Wilshere with the goals.
Arsenal are away at Leicester City on Sunday at 4pm. Besiktas open their league campaign away at Mersin İdmanyurdu on Saturday.