By Richard Clarke in Athens
We have been here before.
Matchday six with qualification already assured, travelling to Olympiacos with a young squad, difficult defeats, strong reactions.
The storylines are very familiar and, over the longer term, normally the ending has been happy enough.
In fact if history tells us anything it is that Arsenal fans should be more confident of their side’s Premier League response than their ability to squeeze out a result at the home of the Greek champions.
They have concluded two of their last three Champions League group stages at Olympiacos and a much-changed side has lost both times.
Once again Arsène Wenger has shuffled his squad considerably for Tuesday’s trip to Greece. The manager said his side was “jaded” after the disappointing 2-0 defeat by Swansea on Saturday and rest is the only cure.
A win over Montpellier on matchday five put Arsenal through to the knockout stage for the 13th consecutive season. Top spot (and a supposedly easier draw) is at stake this evening. But the manager has clearly done his maths. The Premier League points available between now and the resumption of this competition at the end of February are sizeable and a win over West Brom at the weekend will have more immediate benefit for his side.
Saturday’s defeat sent Arsenal down to 10th in the Premier League but there are 23 games still to go and the gap to the fourth and final Champions League spot is five points.
It is no wonder the manager was trying to calm the critics ahead of the game.
“This situation is where experience helps,” he said. “The world has become more emotional about every single thing but, for me, that is not the real world.
“The real world is to take things in the right way, care about what you do - and I really do care what I do and about this club - but not go overboard. We lost on Saturday and no matter what happens we will lose again and win again.”
The manager was literally in philosophical mood.
“We are in the country of Socrates,” he commented at one point in his press conference in Athens. “He said: ‘I know that I know nothing’. That’s a bit like football.”
Of Saturday’s starters, the manager has retained only Wojciech Szczesny, Thomas Vermaelen and Carl Jenkinson. The rest of the XI this evening can be classed as players ‘needing a game’. The bench will be full of teenagers.
“Many players are injured and others needed a rest so the combination of the two makes a mixed squad, yes,” said Wenger. “But the team will be nearly all experienced international players and the young players will be on the bench.”
The manager intimated that only one of the youngsters could start.
“Jernade Meade has a chance to play left back,” said Wenger. “He is not the tallest player but he is dynamic, with a short aggression and can win ball at the feet. He is a fighter, a real fighter, so I have no worries about him at all.
“I just take this game as another one we want to win. I believe the squad [I picked] is in the best interest of our ability to win the game because many players were on the edge on Saturday and honestly, if we were not qualified, I would have brought one or two more but not more than that.”
Olympiacos nearly upset the odds in Group B this season. It was expected to be a comfortable cruise for Arsenal and Schalke and, yes, both teams qualified last time out - but it has been a little tougher than on first glance. Had Leonardo Jardim’s side not lost at home to Schalke in their first game this finale might have been very different.
Still, Olympiacos are assured of Europa League football and come into this game having dropped only four out of 39 points in their domestic league this season.
“They have shown a lot of quality in the group stage,” said Wenger. “In the first match against us, they were a bit unlucky because they had the first chances on the night, and they were also a bit unlucky at Schalke as well when they lost 1-0. They were closer to going through this season than last season.
“But the players should not be surprised by the commitment of Olympiacos because it is an historic club with huge pride, and for them to play against Arsenal will be an opportunity to show their quality.”
In order to secure top spot, Wenger’s men have to win and Montpellier must take something off Schalke. The manager is not entirely sure that the honour brings a massive advantage but he is confident a win in Athens would see them win Group B.
“Yes, I'm convinced that Montpellier will make a result against Schalke,” he said. “They are highly motivated to do it.
“If we win the game I am sure we will finish top of the group. But we know Olympiacos is a difficult place and we need to play at a very good level to do it.
“I know it is not necessarily an advantage [to finish top]. But you do play the second game at home and [this year] you don't play Barcelona!
“We played them a lot recently and, even if it would be a good challenge, if we would want to do that we would want to do it later.”
True enough. If Olympiacos on matchday six is ‘déjà vu all over again’ then Barcelona in the knockout stage has an all too similar familiarity.
But all that can wait for now - until at least March if Arsenal win Group B. Until February if they don’t.
However -– for those with their feet up or feet running on Tuesday - it would be nice to finish with a flourish.
Olympiacos: Lykogiannis (ankle), Holebas (suspended), Papadopoulos (knee)
Arsenal: Sagna (foot), Fabianski (ankle), Santos (abdominal), Koscielny (thigh), Diaby (thigh)Copyright 2013 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 3 Dec 2012