By Richard Clarke
When Arsenal lost at Shakhtar and Braga, Arsène Wenger always knew he had a trump card up his sleeve. On Wednesday night, he will be forced to play it.
Partizan Belgrade have been, by far, the poorest side in Group H - five games, five defeats, one goal. If they lose at Emirates Stadium they will become only the tenth team in Champions League history to suffer a pointless campaign in the Group Stages.
Wenger admits back-to-back defeats have left his side in a “tricky” situation. But although the sanctity of top spot seems beyond them, Arsenal still have their fate firmly in their own hands.
They simply have to match Braga’s result and they will go through on head-to-head record. A win will secure it. But given the Portuguese face a daunting trip to Donetsk, Arsenal may not require all three points.
Having thumped 14 goals in their first three wins, it is disappointing they are playing brinkmanship now. But they have been in this position before.
“For us it’s quite simple, the Champions League is an important part of our targets for the season and we want to be in the last 16,” said Wenger.
“We have put ourselves a little bit in a tricky position with our last two games but it is still all in our hands and that’s what we want to do – qualify.
“We lost at Donetsk and Braga. The fact that Donetsk won all their games - apart from the big defeat they had at Emirates - means they are in a strong position to win the group. But I feel at Braga we were a bit unlucky and when we played at Donetsk they had a very good game.
“We always knew we had the security of playing at home in our last game but we hoped Shakhtar could drop some points.”
Centre back Laurent Koscielny is fit to continue after going off with concussion in the 2-1 win over Fulham on Saturday. He will be required because Johan Djourou (thigh) has dropped out of the squad and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) will not be back until the New Year.
Emmanuel Eboue returns after sitting out the Fulham game. Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Abou Diaby (ankle) are back in training but are doubtful for Monday’s trip to Manchester United let alone Wednesday.
Robin van Persie is getting fitter all the time and could start only his third game of the season.
Arsenal have picked a bad year to finish second in their Group. Topping the table does not always mean you avoid the Big Guns – but it does this season.
If Arsenal finish second they will have the option of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Schalke in the draw for the last 16 on December 17. It is a stellar cast but, for Wenger, an early clash only advances the inevitable.
“If you want to win the Champions League, you have to play against these big teams,” he said.
“First of all, it is not a guarantee that we play Barcelona or Bayern in the next round – there are some other teams we can play. So what happens, happens.
“What is important is not to focus on the teams we might play, we first have to be very pragmatic and qualify first. We will see then who we get.”
There is a slim chance Arsenal could finish on top. But the formula involves Braga winning at Shakthar’s fortress in Donetsk.
Wenger found out the size of that task on Matchday Four. The visitors arrived with a 100 per cent record and lead early through Theo Walcott’s breakaway strike. However key players had been left in London and the home side won it late on. The same situation occurred in Portugal last time out.
“The problem we have had is that, in many matches after the Champions League, we have played away from home,” said the manager.
“So when we go to Aston Villa, for example, we were in a position where we had to win. If you play exactly the same players you have more chances to lose the game.
“We were in a position where we could manage the situation as we had nine points. We thought ‘OK, we can rotate'.
“It didn't work in the Champions League I must admit but it worked in the Premier League because we always got good results away. And in the last game we were really unlucky.”
Aside from Group H, Partizan are flying. They are five points clear at the top of the Serbian League and have won their last 11 domestic games. In his pre-match press conference coach Alexander Stanojevic admitted his side have “nothing to lose”.
Having been spoon-fed two easy wins at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal return there with their qualification on something of a knife-edge. Wenger is used to it.
“You want to play the game without fear,” said the manager. “Fear is the best way not to achieve what you want to achieve.
“But risk is part of the game - you have to accept that.
“In fact, I am a fan of that. I have a philosophy based on risk and I know it is part of the game. Nine times out of ten you win, one time out of ten you lose.
“We want to stay in this competition and the players want to stay in this competition. I am convinced of that. They know what they want to achieve.
“Even by losing the game we can still qualify. But we do not want to envisage that.
"We want to win the game.”
Fortunately that is all they have to do.Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source