Twelve months on, Arsenal return to Turkey for the first leg of the Champions League qualifier. Frequently we are told that winning the title is aided by experience of having done so before. If that’s the case, the same surely applies to this stage of the competition and Arsenal are old hands at this type of fixture, undefeated in the previous six ties with not even a leg drawn.
Repeating that form will be vital to progressing and there is no reason why Arsenal should not feel confident of doing so. The squad was boosted with Laurent Koscielny travelling and Wenger must be confident that he can last the full ninety minutes as Per Mertesacker was not aboard the diverted flight. Mathieu Flamini recovered from a bout of sickness and made the journey but Kieran Gibbs is out for three weeks whilst Yaya Sanogo has a hamstring twang which has denied him the opportunity of stretching his scoreless run to sixteen games.
Monreal and Olivier Giroud are the only changes that I would expect Arsène to be contemplating this evening, leaving the line-up as:
Szczesny; Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Monreal; Arteta; Ramsey, Wilshere; Sanchez, Cazorla; Giroud
It’s good enough to win this evening and there’s no reason to believe that the performance won’t be an improvement on the weekend as the players begin to hit their stride for the coming season. The belief for that is a number of individuals were poor, the team collectively disjointed and they can only get better. The majority of the squad can draw on last season’s meetings with Fenerbahçe following the home defeat against Aston Villa; a tough match was expected but Arsenal ran out comfortable winners.
It’s something the manager is aware of,
“The group still needs to grow. But every game you win makes you stronger and helps gain confidence. We have won matches recently and we’re more positive at the moment but the reality of the competition is it’s about performance. The environment doesn’t count for anything. We were not completely happy with our performance last Saturday against Crystal Palace and we want to improve tomorrow.”
Whilst the result tonight is important, if Arsenal do succumb they need to be in touching distance. History is with them in terms of competitive games, the club has never lost a European tie in Turkey although Arsenal did lose 0 – 2 to Besiktas on 21st May 1966. The eyes of the world were not gazing particularly in the direction of that game although they were focussed on Highbury as Henry Cooper’s valiant effort to dethrone Cassius Clay ended in the sixth round. The two sides met again four days later and played out a goalless draw.
Confidence is crucial as we saw last season. Snatching a win to begin a long unbeaten run will form the basis of a good start to the season. With the expected top four winning, taking advantage of Manchester United’s early slip, building form on the back of that is vital. I’m happy for the media to salivate over City and Chelsea; let them, Arsenal flying below the radar is a good thing as it keeps the pressure away.
Arsène did not downplay talk that his transfer policy will be dictated by the result of this tie,
“The play-off is not] not affecting too much my transfer policy. Financially it is a big game but it’s not that that’s the most important [thing]. We want to compete at the top level, we want to fight against the best in Europe and that’s the real target of the competition tomorrow.
It’s more than the financial consequences. We have always in the history of the club adapted to our financial potential but what is very important is that we want to play with the best. That’s the real target of the qualifier.”
Having completed most of his business already, he can afford to be somewhat relaxed about the impact of not qualifying for the Champions League. With only possibly a centre back and midfielder to come in, it seems unlikely that decisions will be upset in that respect. Perhaps he has a rabbit to pull out of the hat in that sense but it seems unlikely and indeed, players will be more swayed by the potential of the squad in the domestic league and the pay packet as well. The Champions League isn’t irrelevant of course and no-one is claiming that but at this stage of the transfer window, it isn’t going to be the decisive factor for the players we are probably looking at. You can guess that I don’t expect a signing of the ilk of Özil to be made in the next fortnight.
As it is, I do expect a win tonight and more comfortable than some are predicting. Besiktas had a good win in the last round but there are valid footballing reasons why Feyenoord were in the Third Qualifying round. Let’s not get caught in the trap of overstating our opponents without recognising that Arsenal have played two, won two so far this season.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.