By Rob Kelly
“There is life in our team, there's a dynamic in our team, there’s quality in our team… I'm long enough in the game to know if there’s something there or not and there's a lot there.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
There was a sense of defiance in the air at London Colney on Tuesday as Arsene Wenger sat down to face the media for the first time since his side’s defeat to Manchester United. Having taken time to absorb the result and study the tapes, the manager had seen enough cause for optimism to come out fighting.
There will come a time in every season when strong leadership is required to steady the ship and Wenger - with more than 30 years' experience as an elite manager - tends to know exactly when that is. And when your next game can secure your passage to the knockout stage of the Champions League for a 12th successive season, it helps to add a little perspective.
There is no hiding from the fact that things have not gone according to plan since that Anderlecht comeback on matchday four, but Wenger refuses to indulge in self-pity. When it was put to the manager that the situation was a “crisis”, he remarked that he would have to check the definition of the word, such was the discrepancy between his understanding of it and his side’s current plight.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s result, it was quickly forgotten how slick and dominant Arsenal were for long stretches. Often accused of not performing on the big occasion, the Gunners dominated midfield and stretched the Man United defence almost to breaking point. For Wenger there were enough positives to suggest that a recovery is imminent and can start against Dortmund on Wednesday night.
The sight of Wojciech Szczesny and Jack Wilshere limping off against Manchester United added injury to the insult of defeat, and Wenger must do without both players on Wednesday night. That should mean a second Champions League start in three games for Emiliano Martinez.
Theo Walcott remains sidelined with the groin problem he sustained on international duty with England, while Danny Welbeck is a doubt. Olivier Giroud is not registered for the group stage.
The good news is the return of Laurent Koscielny after nearly two months out with an Achilles problem. The Frenchman’s quality has been sorely missed - as has the authority his partnership with Per Mertesacker gives the defence.
“We play at home - it’s an important game for us and we feel that, despite the defeat on Saturday, we have a good dynamic in the team and we have a very good chance to beat Dortmund,” he said.
Arsenal: Ospina (thigh), Ozil (knee), Debuchy (ankle), Walcott (groin), Gnabry (match fitness), Szczesny (hip), Wilshere (ankle)
Dortmund: Papastathopoulos (calf), S Bender (hip), Reus (ankle), Hummels (ankle), Kirch (thigh), Nuri Sahin (knee), Blaszczykowski (doubt - knee)
“When you play 50 to 60 games a season you go through periods that are a bit more difficult. It is always a good opportunity inside every club to show how strong you are. I don’t deny that it was a huge disappointment to lose the game on Saturday, but I think it is a great opportunity [now].
“There were plenty of positives. I am long enough in the sport to know that when you play well but lose the game you get flooded with critics. And when you play a very bad game but you win it, everyone says how great you are.
“It is our job to take a distance from that and see what was right and what was wrong. The rest is just part of the game.”
Dortmund and Arsenal have become well acquainted in recent seasons - they've met five times over the past three years. It remains all square on two wins each and a draw, although Wenger accepts that his side were well beaten in their last meeting in Germany in September.
Since then things have taken a turn for the worse for Jurgen Klopp’s team. The charismatic 47-year-old has won two Bundesliga titles, the DFB-Pokal and two DFL Supercups - and guided Dortmund to the 2013 Champions League final - but he is experiencing the first real difficulties of his reign.
Dortmund lie in the relegation places in the Bundesliga, having claimed just 11 points from 12 games this season. To make matters worse, they let slip a two-goal lead against Paderborn on Saturday and lost the exciting Marco Reus to an ankle injury that is likely to rule him out until the New Year.
While Wenger has sympathy for his opposite number's troubles, he does not expect anything less than a major examination of his side’s credentials at Emirates Stadium.
“They are a quality team with quality players,” he said. “They are very quick in transition, very quick going forward and defend together. Individually, many of their players are international players for Germany, especially, and some for Poland. They are a very strong side.
“I think they had many injuries at the start of the season. Because they are a big club, the questions come very quickly - 'why do you lose?' - and then the confidence drops a little bit.
“I don't worry too much for them in the [German] championship. They have a rival like Bayern who, once you are too many points behind, it is difficult to reach them again. I don't think they will stay where they are at the moment.”
The maths is pretty simple for the Gunners: win or draw and their last-16 place is secure. They can even afford to lose to Dortmund and still progress if the game between Anderlecht and Galatasaray in Belgium ends all square.
"We know where we failed on Saturday. I'm long enough in the game to know if there’s something there or not and there's a lot there"
There is no doubt that Wenger’s side face a major challenge, both to overcome their own recent disappointments and also to handle a German side that has lit up this season’s Champions League. With 13 goals scored in the group stage, Dortmund have the second-best tally after Shakhtar Donetsk, while for the first time ever they have scored at least twice in five consecutive games in the competition.
But despite the size of Arsenal's task, Wenger is unwavering in his support of his players. He knows more than anyone about the depth of their potential and their hunger to make up for recent results. The manager emanated confidence at his pre-match press conference and was keen to remind his players just how good they can be.
“I know what happens after you lose a big game,” he said. “I'm just disappointed at the moment, because there is life in our team, there's a dynamic in our team, there’s quality in our team. We know where we failed on Saturday. I'm long enough in the game to know if there’s something there or not and there's a lot there.”
Now they must prove it by taking down Dortmund.
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