By Rob Kelly
“One thing that has not changed compared to 18 years ago - the players were very intelligent then and they are still very intelligent today. They know what is at stake. Mathematically they know this is THE game for us.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
After exactly 18 years in charge of Arsenal, in a role that he admits has become his life’s work, Arsene Wenger could be forgiven for taking the opportunity to indulge in a little reflection.
However, for this most driven of individuals - a man constantly engaged in the pursuit of excellence and sporting perfection - all that really matters is what happens next.
And make no mistake, what happens next is of real significance. Forget others’ desire to luxuriate in a past filled with glory, success and achievement; Galatasaray are in town intent on spoiling the anniversary party and Wenger knows that anything less than three points will make life decidedly difficult.
“Of course it’s a great honour and privilege to be in charge of such a big club for such a long time [but] I have no time to look back right now,” he said. “I never look back. Your target is always to get the maximum potential out of the team. The only thing I would say this season is that the team has huge potential and it has [yet] to come out. At the moment I am more worried about that.”
This will be only the second-ever meeting between Arsenal and Galatasaray in European competition. The first was the 2000 Uefa Cup final - a game that the Turks won after a penalty shoot-out. In a temporary concession to the past, Wenger admits the game remains fresh in his mind even now.
“I remember the number of chances we missed,” he said. “Their goalkeeper, Claudio Taffarel, made some unbelievable saves and I also remember that the referee put the penalties at the Turkish end [of the ground] for security reasons. That was an amazing decision.”
The Frenchman will be hoping for less controversy and less profligacy on Wednesday night in a game that has already assumed real importance.
The Gunners come into this game with something to prove. Having won just one of their last six Champions League games (albeit it against Turkish opposition in Besiktas), they need to find their feet again and deliver a more convincing performance than last time out in Dortmund on matchday one.
Wenger expects a strong response, and stressed that it is the games at Emirates Stadium that will decide his team’s fate in this year’s competition.
“The group stage is a minimum of 10 points [to progress] so the home games are vital. We had a disappointing result in Dortmund and at the moment I feel that the potential is there for us. We don’t lose a lot but we want to find the winning edge together and we have that opportunity here.
"It’s early but we are maybe more under pressure to win the game than if we had won the first"
“It’s early but we are maybe more under pressure to win the game than if we had won the first. But it is [always] the same in the Champions League - you want to win your home games. You need one good result away from home and then win all your home games.”
To that end, the omens are good. Excluding penalty shoot-outs, Arsenal have never lost to Turkish opposition in Europe and have kept eight clean sheets in their nine matches. Meanwhile Galatasaray have never won on English soil, losing six of their nine matches on these shores.
However, Wenger does have a few selection posers following Saturday’s north London derby. Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere all limped out of that game, with only the latter passed fit for Wednesday night. The manager is confident that his squad has the depth to cope.
“We have plenty of options," he said. "I believe we have a strong squad and we want to use that during the season. We have more options offensively, but that has to be translated on board and we have to score the goals we could score looking at the possession we have had so far.”
If the stats are anything to go by, goals should not pose a problem for Wenger’s side. Galatasaray have only kept one clean sheet in their last 14 Champions League games and needed a 91st-minute equaliser from Burak Yilmaz to rescue a point at home against Anderlecht on matchday one.
However, facts and figures rarely tell the full story. Now managed by Cesare Prandelli, the Turks can call upon a Champions League winner in Wesley Sneijder, the tough-tackling Brazil international Felipe Melo, plus the powerful central defensive pairing of Aurelien Chedjou and Semih Kaya. And with the dangerous Yilmaz up front - Turkey’s second top scorer in Champions League history - they will pose a serious threat.
|Arsenal: Ramsey (hamstring), Arteta (calf), Gnabry 9knee), Walcott (knee), Monreal (back), Sanogo (hamstring), Debuchy (ankle), Giroud (tibia)|
The Turks also have happy memories of their previous visit to north London, in 2013, when a late goal from Didier Drogba helped them to a 2-1 victory against Arsenal at the Emirates Cup. Much has changed since then, but Wenger respects the challenge they will pose.
“Yes [they have changed] because Fatih Terim was the manager at the time and since then Mancini has been manager and now it's Prandelli,” he said. “They look on the managerial front like they go for Italian managers with a lot of experience, so you expect the team to be well organised. They are the dominant club usually in Turkey and they have always top-quality players.”
Prandelli accepts that his side will be underdogs on Wednesday night, but is confident they can spring a shock. “We have to make sure we don't change our philosophy and play our own game. All these experiences [like winning 2-1 at Arsenal] boost your morale. It can give you an advantage and additional confidence, but we have to be very brave.”
During his time at the helm, Wenger has seen the landscape of European football radically change - but one thing that has not altered is his desire to lift the Champions League before he calls time on a glittering career.
The first small step on the road to success is a victory on Wednesday night. Wenger acknowledges his side will be favourites, he accepts they are under pressure and he has stressed they must improve. But he insists the squad are well aware of what is at stake and are ready to meet the challenge head on.
“One thing that has not changed compared to 18 years ago - the players were very intelligent then and they are still very intelligent today. Mathematically they know this is THE game for us,” he said. “We are not the first team to lose in Dortmund but we are still in a strong position. If we win [against Galatasaray] we are in an [even] stronger position.”
Arsenal currently sit bottom of Champions League Group D after the opening round of fixtures and need a win - and a performance - to kickstart their campaign. To do so on the night of their manager’s 18-year anniversary would surely be the perfect present to bring to the party.
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