By Richard Clarke in Belgrade
Arsenal’s strength – mental, physical and defensive – has been under scrutiny since Saturday’s defeat against West Brom. And, here in Belgrade on Tuesday night, they face another severe examination.
The atmosphere inside the FK Partizan Stadium is renowned for its intensity and ferocity while the team, nicknamed ‘The Steamroller’, are building up a similar reputation.
Last season they went unbeaten en route to their third straight Serbian League title. Aleksandar Stanojevic, their much-admired young coach, has constructed a pacy, technical team who will fancy their chances and use their environment.
He brought forward last weekend’s League game against Spartak Zlatibor Voda to Friday so Partizan could have more time to prepare.
The plan backfired in one-sense; the goalless draw ended a run of 12 straight League wins since he took over in April.
However it does mean Partizan have had an extra day of rest and focus ahead of perhaps their biggest game since the visit of Real Madrid in 2003.
It seems that Belgrade has been building up to this game for some time. But security is evident and the club used their official website to appeal for right-minded support on the night.
“Let’s do everything we can to greet and farewell them as friends and to see Londoners leaving Belgrade with the most pleasant possible impressions,” it said. “This is our chance to wipe out ugly traces of recent past and we shouldn’t miss this opportunity.”
On the eve of the match, Wenger was happy to brush aside any concerns. The only dangers he saw were in the Partizan team.
“I leave all that to UEFA and the Serbian authorities,” he said. "I am sure they will do that very well. We are always inside the stadium, so I do not know what is happening outside.
“I expect Partizan to play a highly passionate game and to try to catch us on the break. They have the traditional strengths of Serbian teams. They are intelligent, with a good technique and, if you give them room in the final third, they are always dangerous.
“I believe the collective drive that they have going forward could be most dangerous for us. By that I mean, if we are not prepared, they can win the duels and play at a high pace.”
Arsenal’s preparations have not been helped by Saturday’s 3-2 reverse and a couple of extra injuries. Manuel Almunia hurt his elbow in the penalty incident at the weekend so Lukasz Fabianski will play. Henri Lansbury was also added to the squad after Abou Diaby dropped out with a recurrence of the ankle injury that had kept him sidelined for a fortnight before the visit of Roberto Di Matteo’s men.
To their credit, Arsenal fans clapped off both sides on Saturday. It just proves that West Brom won the game as much as Arsenal lost it.
However the focus of the fallout has centred on what frailties it exposed in Wenger’s side. Too weak, too naïve at the back, too much pointless possession – the charges were laid before the frenzied footballing court many times last season and the knee-jerk verdicts flip-flopped.
Arsenal were 'terrible' at the end of November when they lost to Chelsea and 'terrific' in mid-January when they were top. It goes on and on. And it always will.
The manager was quick to point out that Saturday was the first defeat his side had suffered this season. Eleven points from their first six league games leaves Arsenal third behind leaders Chelsea, whom they visit on Sunday. Meanwhile a victory this evening would see them odds-on to reach the last 16 of the Champions League for the 11th straight season.
If that is weak then show me strength.
That said, Wenger is relying on his squad at the moment with Almunia and Diaby joining an injury list consisting of Robin van Persie (ankle), Nicklas Bendtner (groin), Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles), Theo Walcott (ankle) and Aaron Ramsey (leg). Thankfully Kieran Gibbs is fit after serious fears about the bruised foot he received at Tottenham last Tuesday.
But then, if anything, doesn’t Arsenal’s reasonable form this season prove the overall squad has got better in the last 12 months? In the first six weeks of the season, Wenger has had to lean heavily his supporting cast and only on Saturday did they really fluff their lines.
The added factor this evening, of course, is that they are playing in front of a tough, tough audience.
“I do not believe the injuries are any excuse,” said Wenger. “We miss big players but we have 20 big players, so it would not be an excuse were we not to perform. We have a good enough team no matter what happens.
“The disappointment was very deep [after West Brom] but we can learn from what has happened to us.
“I believe in the intelligence of my group players and I have no doubt in their talents. We will be highly motivated and will try to redress what was not right on Saturday.”
This will be Fabianski’s first Champions League outing since a patchy performance at Porto in last season’s Knockout Round. As on Saturday, the manager backed his starting keeper.
“I have no concerns about him,” Wenger told journalists, “only you do.
“He made the mistakes [at Porto] but he can show he has learned from that.”
That game in Portugal was the first of three straight defeats away from home in the Champions League. In fact Arsenal’s previous victory on the road in Europe came in Liege on the opening night of Group H last season.
“But I believe we have not lost many games either,” Wenger replied when the issue was brought up.
“We qualified from the group early last year and, after that, when you go into the last 16, a draw away from home is a good result.
“Overall I think our away results in the Champions League over a longer period of time are good," concluded Wenger.
“If you turn up with a good performance you can win anywhere in the world.
"So let’s just do that.”