By Richard Clarke in Istanbul
“It's a big test because we had a short preparation and we know that in one week we have to produce three big games - Besiktas, away and home, then Everton in between. At the start of the season on it's a very big challenge for us.” - Arsène Wenger
If you look at the record books, qualifying for the Champions League has never seemed to be much of a challenge for Arsenal. Their six ties in the final preliminary round have brought 12 straight, satisfying wins.
But the reality is somewhat different.
"The three Turkish teams - Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas - are traditionally difficult opponents for everybody"
In the last three seasons, the games against Udinese and Celtic contained differing levels of tension. While last year’s first leg at Fenerbahce was tricky given the incredible atmosphere Turkish fans create for their team, and the fact that Arsenal were riding on the crest of a slump having lost a fractious opening game to Aston Villa a few days earlier.
Arsène Wenger returns to Turkey this season against Besiktas in better shape mentally. But, for him, the last-minute winner against Crystal Palace does not mask a patchy performance. With the German World Cup winners not yet in the squad and others still suffering the physical effects of the tournament, the manager knows he must gather all the strength he can muster for tie that, while perfectly manageable, could easily slip from Arsenal's grasp.
“Yes, we are in a more positive environment than a year ago,” he said. “But the reality of the competition is the performance. Your environment doesn't play for you, what is important is that we are not completely happy with the performance we produced on Saturday and we have room for improvement. That's what we want to bring into our game on Tuesday.”
Wenger is rightly proud of a record of 16 consecutive qualifications to the Champions League group stages. In fact, it probably only ranks behind the club’s tally of 14 consecutive qualifications FROM the Champions League group stages.
“I just feel that I have good experience in the Champions League,” he said when asked about his ambitions in Europe this season. “I know you have to be pragmatic and realistic and just go game-by-game.
“First we have to qualify. That’s a very difficult task but we want absolutely to achieve it. We know we are in front of two big games and before we speak about anything else we have to produce big performances against Besiktas.”
Despite an injury concern following the Palace win, Laurent Koscielny is fit enough that Per Mertesacker was not required ahead of his scheduled return date.
That is also testament to young Calum Chambers, who has become almost essential to Arsenal despite only signing for the club in the summer. However Wenger is aware his progress will be managed once the squad is up to full strength.
“Every game is important for him and he looks to have adapted very well,” said Wenger. “Will he play the full season? Certainly not because he is only 19 years old but, at the moment, in every game he looks like he is growing and getting better in his position. Also he looks to resist well the pressure and that is very important.”
Besiktas will be a little different on Tuesday. While their own Inonu Stadium is under reconstruction, they are playing at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, venue of Liverpool’s 2005 victory in the competition. It holds 76,000 spectators and around 55,000 are expected.
In addition, the home side will be wearing black to commemorate the recent death of former president Suleyman Seba. Arsenal will be in red and white.
|Arsenal: Gnabry (knee), Ospina (thigh), Gibbs (hamstring), Walcott (knee), Ryo (hamstring), Mertesacker, Ozil, Podolski (match fitness)
Besiktas: Hutchinson (doubt - hamstring)
The Turkish League season will not start until after the second leg but home and away victories against Feyenoord suggest Besiktas have form. Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba hit a hat-trick for them in the second leg. There is further familiarity in the form of manager Slaven Bilic, ex of West Ham and Everton, while midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup rose through the youth ranks at Arsenal.
“The three Turkish teams - Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas - are traditionally difficult opponents for everybody,” said Wenger. “Besiktas have just knocked Feyenoord out and it is never easy to do that to a Dutch side. We are conscious that it's a big task but we're focused to try to repeat what we did last year against Fenerbahce.”
Last season, Arsenal’s trip to Turkey appeared every bit as daunting as this game at Besiktas. But in the end Fenerbahce were swept aside 3-0; an encounter in which Aaron Ramsey showed, perhaps for the first time, that he can exert ‘scruff-of-the-neck’ control of a game.
A year older, a year wiser and a year stronger, you’d back Wenger’s men to exert their experience in both games.
Certainly a win in Istanbul would ease the manager’s burden in a pacy, pressure-filled start to the season.
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