By Richard Clarke
As soon as the draw was made, many observers predicted Champions League Group H would be a stroll for Arsenal.
History will certainly portray it that way if Arsène Wenger’s side beat AZ Alkmaar this evening at Emirates Stadium to reach the ten points normally requisite for the Knockout Stages. Getting the primary job done with two games to spare is some cushion these days.
However, as there have been significant stumbles along the way, that can hardly be classed as ‘a given’. Conceding two goals in the opening five minutes at Liege and an equaliser in the last seconds in Holland have placed little question marks over their passage through. Meanwhile, tonight, they face a coach with a tremendous record against Arsenal.
Ronald Koeman was in charge of Ajax when they gleaned home and away draws in the Second Group Stage of 2003. More famously, his PSV outfit eliminated Arsenal in the Knockout Round in 2006/07. Neither side would have won prizes for entertainment but the former Dutch international would argue that is hardly the job of the underdogs in crucial ties.
There must be few managers that Wenger has failed to beat in his first five opportunities. However, ahead of the game, Wenger played down the emphasis on individuals.
“Personally I don’t feel that I play against Ronald Koeman,” he said. “I think I play against Alkmaar with my team and that is the most important thing. Ronald Koeman didn’t score in the last minute when we played against Alkmaar over there.
“Credit to him though he organises his team, they fight well and he has always been a manager of good sides. But I have never in my life been obsessed by personal rivalries.”
Ahead of the game in Holland, much was made of AZ’s troubles. Since winning the Eredivisie last season, they have lost manager Louis van Gaal to Bayern Munich, chairman Dirk Scheringa to financial problems and a number of key players to covetous clubs.
Since the first game they have slipped from sixth to seventh in the table and needed extra time to beat a lower league side in the Dutch Cup. Wenger, however, is hardly seeing them as a soft touch.
“When, like Alkmaar, you come into your first year in the Champions League, you put so much mental investment into Europe that, for the game after, you are nearly dead,” he said.
"When [like Arsenal] you are playing those sort of games regularly it's a normal game and you're not over-committed mentally so you have a chance in the next match.
“I still believe AZ have a substantial chance to go through [from Group H]. At Olympiacos I felt they were unlucky to lose the game.
“I watched this game carefully and they were a bit unlucky. They had the best chances, good possession and then, against Standard, they got caught back late in the game. So they have shown the potential to qualify.
“It will be very tight until the end. Olympiacos now go away twice to Standard and to Alkmaar. I feel these two games will make the decision on who goes through.”
Wenger’s injury news before the game was basically two out, two in. Gael Clichy (back) and Nicklas Bendtner (groin) will miss a month each but Tomas Rosicky returns after a knee problem and Samir Nasri continues his recovery from a broken leg by being named in the squad.
“Tomas had a small injury this time but you expect that,” said Wenger. “He played three games in a week after he came back but he manages to resist now. As for Nasri, I'm not sure whether I will play him or not. It's his first game so I don't know.”
While ten points should be enough, Arsenal will only ensure qualification if they win and Olympiacos get something in Liege. But, whatever happens, Wenger's ambitions will extend beyond Matchday Four.
“It is good to go through early,” he said. “However we want to finish first in the group and that will not be done tonight. Yet we can make the first step - win and qualify.
“That will be a big leap but you know we were warned at Alkmaar that this team has quality and that, in my opinion, they focus highly on the Champions League.
“Maybe a bit too much if you look at their position in the league but they have won the League last year and from what I have seen in the last game I believe we want to go into the game focused 100 per cent.
“For our part, we have to show that we can focus every three days, we can play for each other all along the season and we can prepare every game with the same kind of conscientious attitude.
“That's a lot of things to accomplish. But it is all in front of us and, for example, in this game we have to show that we can go into the game with the same seriousness that we have done on Saturday.”
While the North London derby was about passion, this evening is one for professionalism. Both will play their part this season.