By Rob Kelly in Istanbul
“The response after a defeat is always very important. I think what we want is to come back quickly and have a strong defensive performance like we had before the Stoke game.” - Arsene Wenger
Arsenal are back in Istanbul for the second time in less than four months, and once again they have a point to prove.
Last time out, Champions League group stage qualification was on the line in the first leg of their play-off against Besiktas. On this occasion their place in the last 16 is already secure - and their opponents, Galatasaray, already out - but delivering a convincing performance remains of paramount importance.
Arsene Wenger has always taken great pride in the way his sides have dealt with adversity and, following Saturday’s defeat at Stoke City, they are under the microscope again. However, as the manager will no doubt reiterate to his players, Arsenal must not let one below-par 45-minute spell derail what had been an encouraging return to form.
The chance to get back on track starts tonight in the Turk Telekom Arena - and it is imperative that the opportunity is taken with a packed Christmas schedule on the horizon. Seal a morale-boosting victory at one of the most hostile outposts of Europe and Arsenal can look forward to the festive period with more relish.
As if any added motivation were needed, there is also the fact that a win in Istanbul could see the Gunners finish top of Group D to secure a theoretically more favourable last-16 draw. While Wenger admits it is unlikely - the already-eliminated Anderlecht need to win at Borussia Dortmund - it does provide added incentive.
But, as the manager was keen to stress in his pre-match press conference, performance is everything tonight. This Arsenal side is more than capable of a stirring response to what was hopefully a temporary setback - and if it also propels them to top spot in Group D then that is an added bonus.
Perhaps with one eye on an unforgiving Christmas fixture list, Wenger has left several key figures at home for some much-needed rest and recuperation.
Alexis Sanchez has been the Gunners’ main man since his arrival in the summer, but they will have to do without him in Turkey as the manager holds him back for some of the bigger tests around the corner. Likewise Santi Cazorla, Kieran Gibbs, Danny Welbeck and Laurent Koscielny have not travelled, although there is a welcome return for Mathieu Debuchy after nearly three months out with an ankle problem.
In a relaxed pre-match press conference at an airport hotel in Istanbul, Wenger underlined his faith in his players and then took the unusual step of naming his starting XI.
Wojciech Szczesny is back in goal after four games out with a hip injury, while Debuchy will be joined by Per Mertesacker, Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin in defence. In midfield, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey will play behind a front three of Joel Campbell, Yaya Sanogo and Lukas Podolski. It is a much-changed side, but one still littered with international and Champions League experience.
|Arsenal: Ozil (knee), Wilshere (ankle), Arteta (calf), Ospina (thigh), Walcott (groin), Monreal (ankle), Rosicky (thigh), Kosicelny (rested), Alexis (rested), Cazorla (rested), Gibbs (rested), Welbeck (rested)
Galatasaray: Dzemaili (hamstring), Selcuk Inan (suspended)
There are some more unfamiliar names on the bench, as Wenger gives some of the club’s rising stars an opportunity to stake their claim. For the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Stefan O’Connor and Alex Iwobi tonight’s match will be an unforgettable first taste of Champions League football, and an experience that could even kick-start their professional careers.
Whoever gets their chance at the Turk Telekom Arena, Wenger expects to see a palpable reaction from his players. “The response after a defeat is always very important,” he said. “What we want is to come back quickly and have a strong defensive performance like we had before the Stoke game.
“As you would expect, everybody is disappointed after that result but the Premier League is difficult and we want to be judged at the end of the season. I think [the Galatasaray match] is my 180th Champions League game and that shows that we have always responded.
“Many of those were for this club and I think we want to be judged at the end of the season, not after every single game. That is normal but emotionally it’s always very hard. Let’s get our stability back defensively and we’ll see at the end of the season where we are.”
It has not been the easiest of campaigns for Arsenal, but it has arguably been even more challenging for Galatasaray.
The Turkish champions appointed Cesare Prandelli in the summer to great fanfare, but the former Italy World Cup-winning manager struggled to make any real impact in Istanbul.
"I’ve been here before and I think [Galatasaray] have the quality to show they could have gone through. They did last year - they knocked Juventus out here in the last game"
With domestic results flagging, and a haul of one point from five Champions League group-stage matches, the club parted company with their manager in late November. Prandelli has been replaced by former Galatasaray midfielder Hamza Hamzaoglu, and it has led to an immediate upturn in form.
Gala have won three on the bounce, scoring seven goals in the process, and are back up to second spot in the Turkish Super Lig. And while they cannot do anything but finish bottom of Group D, Wenger is certain that tonight’s encounter will be a fierce one.
“Turkey is a proud country and Galatasaray are its biggest club,” he said. “I don’t think they can afford to go into this game on a low pace. I expect a very strong response from Galatasaray.
“I’ve been here before and I think they have the quality to show they could have gone through. They did last year - they knocked Juventus out here in the last game - and I think this will be a very intense match for us.”
This match comes at the perfect time for Arsenal. Just three days after their Britannia blip, this is an immediate opportunity to get that game out of their systems and get back on track.
It comes with the added bonus that Champions League progression is already banked - and all that remains is a chance to secure top spot in Group D. That is an alluring prospect, but should not detract from the primary aim tonight: to restore pride and belief.
The players can play with the freedom that comes with the absence of pressure; it's a chance to right the wrongs of the weekend and deliver a bit of Turkish delight.
“What is most important is that we don’t have to come here after so many games and have to qualify,” Wenger concluded.
“Let’s be realistic - we do not play under too much pressure because we want to win the game but it doesn’t [just] depend on us to finish top of the group. What we want is a different defensive response and I’m sure you’ll get it.”
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