By Richard Clarke in Donetsk
Just before kick-off on Wednesday night, Arsène Wenger will call for calm in the dressing room at the Donbass Arena and stress one vital point to his players.
Having garnered nine points and 14 goals from their first three Group H games, the Arsenal manager should be supremely confident of his side’s ability in Europe. At his pre-match press conference, he even proclaimed they were capable of winning anywhere on the planet.
No, Wenger does not need to chastise his side in this season’s Champions League. He just wants to warn them. The Frenchman has not been fooled by the 5-1 victory over Shakhtar a fortnight ago.
If Arsenal win in Donetsk and Braga fail to beat Belgrade then Wenger’s men will qualify as Group winners. Even if the Portuguese are victorious tonight, coupled with an Arsenal win in Donetsk, then they have to hammer Wenger’s men by seven clear goals at the end of November in order to overtake them. It is getting mathematical and academic.
In such circumstances, complacency sets in.“Yes there is a danger of that,” said Wenger.
“I will remind the players that Shakhtar are a good side that we caught maybe on a good day. They will try to get revenge at home and we have a good opportunity to qualify to directly from the group. We want to take this chance.
“If we take top spot you can ease off a little bit and of course treat the last two games with a more relaxed attitude. And sometimes that’s good when you need to rest a player before a big League game.
“But this game will demand a proper focus because Shakhtar are a good side with top quality. They have won the Europa League and certainly they have been hurt by what happened to them at Emirates. They will give absolutely everything. Don’t forget they played on Friday so they have all the needed preparation before this game.“I felt the first match was tighter than the score indicated. The pitch is good, so should be a good game because the two teams will attack.
“But as well we know can win anywhere in the world. We have done it before - we can win everywhere.”
Despite the call for focus, Wenger is not exactly treating this game as a cup final. He left behind Cesc Fabregas as a precaution. The captain felt his troublesome hamstring during the win over West Ham on Saturday and is not being risked. Andrey Arshavin (virus), Alex Song (calf) and Denilson (groin) are also absent.
That leaves the manager light in central midfield. Don’t be surprised if Craig Eastmond fills the breach in the holding role. The likes of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Henri Lansbury have also made the trip. So, while this may be the Champions League, there will be a Carling Cup element to the bench.
The same was true when Arsenal last visited Donetsk a decade ago. The substitutes that night were Paolo Vernazza, Christopher Wreh, Alberto Mendez, Rhys Weston, Graham Barrett and Freddie Ljungberg and a veteran John Lukic. Only the Swede was a full first–teamer at the time.
That game was a dead rubber in a group from which Arsenal had already qualified. This game has more life, yet Wenger argues the class of 2010 hold a significant edge.“We are much stronger now,” said the manager at Tuesday’s press conference.
“Tomorrow we will have a very strong side, not comparable to the game played 10 years ago.
“Certainly we will face a team who will be up for it. Shakhtar are one of the strong sides in Europe, it will be an exciting game, no matter who is not here.”
Mircea Lucescu’s side lead their domestic League by five points and their heavy defeat at Emirates Stadium stands out like a beacon amid a run of 10 straight wins. They have been shut-out just once this season and scored the most popular goal of the night at Emirates Stadium when Eduardo hit the net. As promised, the striker did not celebrate against his former employers.
“Shakhtar dominate their League and they have just beaten Dymano Kiev,” said Wenger. “They are an unbeatable team here, at least locally, but we have a chance to beat them, so let's try to get the best out of our performance.“I feel they will be a completely different side at home. They have good technical quality so that means if you let them get into a flow they can cause you many problems.”
A decade ago, the Shakhtar trip caused a number of logistical issues for the Arsenal party. These days the facilities at the Donbass Arena are among the best on the Continent in preparation for Euro 2012.
But of course the distance has not changed and, for Wenger, that is the reason for his side’s relatively poor record in this part of Europe.“Yes well most of the time we played in Russia and Ukraine,” said Wenger. “And most of the time, when you go there, you play against very good teams.
“Also, if you have already qualified, it’s always very difficult. But when you have to travel far and it’s more demanding anyway.
“The only special preparations this time is a special plane for the players. We went only the day before the game so we need good conditions. Also we want to come back very quickly so we need a lighter travelling strain than usual.
“Overall we want to be a bit swifter and a bit more comfortable.”
That, of course, goes for qualification as well.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