By Richard Clarke
Arsenal take on both Standard Liege and their own expectations at Emirates Stadium this evening.
Arsène Wenger’s side need a point to qualify for the Knockout Stage, need a win to top Group H and need a defeat like a hole in the head.
The manager dubbed Saturday’s slump at Sunderland as Arsenal’s worst performance of the season. With Chelsea due in North London this weekend, professionalism is the watch word tonight.
On Matchday One in Belgium, Liege led 2-0 after five minutes but Arsenal still ended up with three points that night. They have added another seven since, usually enough to go through, so Wenger will hope that this evening is a box-ticking, confidence-building exercise.
“You feel at the start we were favourites, so if we finish top, it will be like 'job done',” he said at Monday's press conference.
“If you are second in the group, you could have a disadvantage in the draw for the next stage, and you do not want that.”
Wenger welcomes back Kieran Gibbs from injury against Liege. The left back’s suspected broken metatarsal during last week’s England Under-21 international turned out to be merely bad bruising.
Denilson and Theo Walcott returned from their injuries at Sunderland over the weekend. Pre-match, Wenger hinted both could start tonight. The England international may even take the spearhead role up front.
Nicklas Bendtner (groin), Robin van Persie (ankle) Abou Diaby (calf), Johan Djourou (knee) and Gael Clichy (back) are still out. Łukasz Fabiański (knee) makes his Reserve team comeback on Wednesday.
Liege have played Group H without their captain and best player, Steven Defour (foot). Their most eye-catching talent at the Stade de Maurice Dufrasne back in September, Milan Jovanovic, is out this evening with a thigh injury.
The outside world is shouting ‘home win’. However the Arsenal manager is wary of any supposed ‘gimme’ at this level.
“Standard Liege are a team who can raise their game,” said Wenger. “In the [Belgian League], when you watch the tapes, sometimes you think ‘OK, we should beat them'.
“Then, when you play them, you see they can raise their game. We saw that against Olympiacos and at Alkmaar. So Standard are a team who certainly have the capacity to raise their game.”
By the Frenchman’s own admission, Arsenal have to do the same. It is too simplistic to link the lack of Van Persie and Bendtner to the team’s first shut-out of the season last weekend.
“We did not have the right fluency in our game on Saturday,” the manager explained, “nor enough penetrative runs to force the issue in the final part of the pitch.
“That is why we were not dangerous, rather than it being down to any individual. I do not deny at all the super-class of Van Persie, I just feel we still have enough in the locker to score goals even when Robin is not there.
“Sunderland had one shot on target and we lost 1-0. That happens every 200 games.
“So I do not want to question every individual player. We have to support everybody. It is normal that the players are worried when they do not score. We have shown until now we do not rely on one player scoring.
“If Eduardo gives three assists and we score three goals, then that is just as important as scoring.
“Our game is based on a collective attitude and not individual stardom. That is why we educate our players, because we want them to know the importance of the collective game.
“We simply lost a game we did not want to lose at Sunderland, so let's put it right and win the next one.”
Tonight, Arsenal could repeat Tottenham’s 9-1 win over Wigan and it would still not affect the disappointment of Saturday.
It would, however, put Wenger’s men in the Knockout Rounds of the Champions League.
And there are many major clubs around Europe struggling to achieve the same feat right now.