By Richard Clarke in Kiev
Preparation is Arsène Wenger’s strength. But although the Arsenal manager has done his utmost to ready his side physically for the game at Dynamo Kyiv, he can not truly understand their mental state until they step out on to the pitch at the Valeri Lobanovskiy Stadium this evening.
The Frenchman is in the middle of a massive week. One in which they must travel 3,400 miles in two competitions with the aim of taking nine points against three teams. But, above and beyond the mere statistics, this eight-day period also forces Arsenal to confront head-on two of their traditional weaknesses – domestic wins in the North-West of England and European wins in the former Soviet Union.
Wenger started the healing process with a thumping 4-0 win at Blackburn on Saturday but, after Kyiv, he faces a Bolton side who have enjoyed clipping the wings of Premier League high-fliers in the past. Given that Arsenal were only four points off the title last season, dropping three up there is not an option.
Of course the biggest fillip – mental or physical - would be victory tonight in rain-soaked Kiev. The Ukrainian capital was grey and dreary on the morning of this Champions League Group G opener but then Arsenal have left in a similar mood after each of their last six trips to this part of the world. The record goes: Dynamo Kyiv 1-3 (1998), Donetsk 0-3 (2000), Spartak Moscow 1-4 (2001), Lokomotiv Moscow 0-0 (2003), Dynamo Kyiv 1-2 (2003), CSKA Moscow 0-1 (2006). That’s why Wenger knows his side must have their psyche spot-on this evening.
“Football in this region can be a little bit destabilising,” he said. “If you do not prepare well mentally you can be surprised by the level of commitment here and in Russia.
"We have had some bad experiences in this part of Europe before. When we lacked experience we were surprised by the commitment and enthusiasm we got from a side like Kyiv.
"But I believe we have learnt that any place in the world is difficult and I believe mentally we can cope with that better now.
"We just won comfortably at Blackburn on Saturday and that gives us the needed confidence that we can achieve something in the Champions League.”
Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Eboue picked up knocks at Ewood Park but recovered in time to make Wenger’s 18-man squad. Samir Nasri (knee) and Mikael Silvestre (muscular problem) are still out so the only change from the weekend sees Carlos Vela replace Kieran Gibbs.
While Arsenal’s record out here is woeful, that solitary point came against a Lokotmotiv Moscow side managed by Yuri Semin, who takes charge of Kyiv tonight. As a Russian, he was a controversial choice but change was demanded. Kyiv lost all six Champions League group games last season and finished with a goal difference of minus 15. Former Arsenal defender Oleg Luzhny was in charge for a while but he is now Semin’s No 2.
The match between these sides in 2003 was played in front of 80,000 at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium. Tonight’s venue only holds around 16,000 however the atmosphere will not be lacking intensity.
"We know Kyiv is always a very, very difficult place and we respect that,” said Wenger. “At the stadium, they get a big support. However I feel we have enough experience to deal with that because we know it is important to start well.
"But,” he concluded, “what is really important when you go into a game like this is that you play as close as possible to your full potential.
“In a Champions League game you do not get away with less."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