By Richard Clarke
If, as Arsène Wenger asserts, “consistency is quality” then Olympiacos will be dangerous visitors to Emirates Stadium this evening.
The Greek champions have a 100 per cent record on their trips to England – eight games, eight defeats – and their failure to reach the sharp end of the Champions League has led some to see them as almost “group fodder”.
But the Arsenal manager remains wary of a burly side led by a shrewd Brazilian.
At his pre-match press conference, Wenger was more interested in pushing the positives of tonight’s opponents.
In the last 13 years, Olympiacos have failed to make the Group Stages only once. Yes, they have progressed past them on just two occasions but surely that knowledge makes them worthy of more respect.
One suspects there are no exact Greek translations for footballisms such as “canny” or “nous”- and language, after all, is their gift to the world - but Wenger believes Olympiacos have the capacity to translate their modest success into further progression.
“They are an experienced side,” said the Frenchman at his pre-match press conference. “If you look at Olympiacos they have had a run in the Champions League of 10 consecutive years. That means there is a knowledge inside the club and as well a good technical level.
“They are a team who are robust and they are good in the air. They have much more height than you would expect a Greek team to have.
“Their game is mainly orientated on going wide and getting crosses in the box where they have a good presence, so it will be important for us to block their game.”
There are some familiar names in the Olympiacos squad. Olof Mellberg has a place in history as the first ever goalscorer at Emirates Stadium while Didier Domi figured for Newcastle and Leeds. Striker Matt Derbyshire moved from Blackburn in the summer but will not play tonight as he is still recovering from a hernia operation.
Yet the most famous face of all – to fans of the world game at least – will be on the Olympiacos bench. Zico took over from Temuri Ketsbaia on September 16. The legendary Brazilian midfielder was well known to Wenger and remembered kindly.
“When I was in Japan, he was there as well,” said the Arsenal manager. “After that of course he was manager of Japan and I always had links with the national team.”
Zico has started his tenure with four straight wins, including a 1-0 success against AZ Alkmaar on Matchday One. Wenger’s Arsenal will go one better with a victory tonight. Theirs has been a stoic response to the defeats in Manchester.
“I believe we have played well since the start of the season,” he said with more than a hint of incredulity. “What's worse, but in a good way I suppose, is that we haven't won in the games we have played the best. But we showed that we can beat anybody since the start of the season and we have that belief in the squad.”
Nicklas Bendtner will sit out this game after having a car accident at the weekend. Despite a wonderful display at Fulham on Saturday, this could be Vito Mannone’s last game for a while. Manuel Almunia (chest infection) is likely to back for the Blackburn game. Meanwhile the absence of Denilson (back) is now going to be a couple of months rather than a couple of weeks.
The Brazilian’s stress fracture opens up a vacancy alongside Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas. While that pair seem secure in their roles as defensive shield and playmaker respectively, the third man in midfield is one where Wenger feels he has choice.
“Yes, it's a good opportunity for Diaby now,” he admitted. “But we have Rosicky coming back as well so we have plenty of options.
“We have a very big squad at the moment and there are opportunities there for anybody to take. Ramsey is not far away from the first-team now and Wilshere can play when requested. So we have plenty of opportunities for young players to come in.”
Arsenal were saddled with a tough start to the season but the defeats at Manchesters City and United are increasingly looking like the unfortunate blips that Wenger has talked about.
The win at Fulham was certainly hard-fought and of arguable merit but it was certainly a good three points from a tough place.
Victory against Olympiacos would not be nearly as satisfying but it would put Arsenal more than halfway to the Knockout Stages.
And that will do for now.
Referee: Stéphane Laurent Lannoy (France)
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