"I don't really think about [the size of this match]. I just think it's a game that we absolutely want to win. Of course it's very important - but we have started quite well, with three good games and we just want to continue to grow and continue to win our games." - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
Drama has seemed to stalk Arsenal at every turn so far this season. From Aaron Ramsey’s last-gasp winner against Crystal Palace, through to the heat, humidity and hostility of Istanbul, to Saturday evening’s stirring late comeback at Everton, it has been ever present.
There has been no gentle easing into the new campaign, no feeling of the way forward - the fireworks have started early this year, and they’re only getting louder with each passing test. And when you throw Champions League qualification into the mix, it makes Wednesday night’s winner-takes-all showdown with Besiktas a combustible mix.
In the heat of battle, Wenger is convinced that his side’s European experience will hold them in good stead against a robust team that caused the Gunners real problems on home soil. But when it was put to the manager that it would be “unthinkable” for the club to fail to make the group stage for the first time in 17 seasons, his response was emphatic.
“Nothing is unthinkable because it has happened to 99 per cent of all the big clubs in Europe. But what we want of course is to be in there and we think we have the potential to do it. We are highly determined to do it, and the task is clear. We know we can do it, so let's do it.”
It is difficult to overstate just how important those last seven minutes at Goodison Park were to the mood of the Arsenal camp going into this game. Rather than spending 48 hours conducting an inquest into what had gone wrong on Merseyside, there was tangible positivity and pride at a fine fightback.
The manager admitted as much in the immediate aftermath, and said it would certainly have an impact on his players when they line up against Besiktas. “It doesn't give us a down - it makes us strong in our belief and that's an important quality for Wednesday night,” he said.
However, it was not all positive news from Saturday’s match. A foot injury sustained in the dying seconds has deprived the Gunners of Olivier Giroud, while they will also be with their captain Mikel Arteta, who was injured in Istanbul last week, and last year’s Player of the Season, Ramsey, who is suspended. It only adds to the challenge for a side that must also deal with the weight of expectation on their shoulders and the pressure that comes with a game of such financial clout.
As has often been pointed out, a Champions League play-off is worth north of £20 million to its victors, but while Wenger is aware of the fiscal implications of any possible defeat, he insists his focus is on his teamsheet rather than the balance sheet.
"It will affect you because you will have less income but it will not affect us in a dramatic way because we can survive without it. We want to be in the Champions League, we want to play top-level football and financially we have always adapted. When we had very small resources, we adapted to very small resources. But we want to play at the top."
If there had been any doubts as to the size of the challenge Besiktas would pose Arsenal ahead of the first leg, they were all but ended within seconds in Istanbul when Demba Ba hit the bar from kick off. It was an eye-catching moment, and a portent of things to come.
The Turks, driven on by former Gunner Oguzhan Ozyakup, took the game to the Gunners and made the midfield a battleground. It is an area that Wenger expects to be central to the outcome of the return leg.
“We will have to be ready for a battle in midfield, that’s for sure, because they gave us one,” he said. "We will have to move the ball quicker than we did in the first game. I think we are technically equipped to do it but we need to defend well together as well. Therefore, you need to be ready for a battle."
Slaven Bilic’s side may have ruffled a few Arsenal feathers in Turkey, but the Gunners will be playing on a surface more to their liking than what they experienced at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium. And when you factor in the vociferous backing of the Emirates faithful, as keen as anyone for another season of Champions League football, you sense the balance should swing in favour of the team in red and white.
Handling the occasion as much as the opposition will be key for Arsenal on Wednesday night. But, having won 12 of their 13 previous play-off matches, it is something the manager feels is ingrained in their DNA.
"We have big experience in the Champions League, big experience of playing high-pressure games and we can show that. What is more important is the performance of the day, to turn up with a strong display,” Wenger said.
If this nascent season has taught us anything so far, it is that beating Besiktas will not be easy - and will likely come with a healthy dose of drama. But, as that comeback at Goodison Park demonstrated, this Arsenal side has the character, the quality and the heart to handle even the toughest of situations.
And with Champions League football the prize, it is time to strap ourselves in for what promises to be yet another gripping European night at the Emirates.
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