By Rob Kelly
“We have to show that we are an ambitious team with an ambitious squad, and that we can turn up in every single game.” - Arsene Wenger
With his side in the middle of a hot streak, Arsene Wenger faces a dilemma ahead of their latest Champions League assignment.
After six successive Premier League victories, does he stick or twist when it comes to his starting XI? Does shuffle the pack that has served him so well, or keep the faith in a team that is beating all before it domestically?
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The back-to-back games against the Bulgarians offer a tantalising opportunity to the Gunners to take a stranglehold on Group A and put concerted pressure on their biggest rivals for top spot, Paris Saint-Germain.
Should Arsenal win both ties, and they will be heavy favourites to do so against a team that has never won away from home in the Champions League, they will be in the driving seat to clinch first place.
It is a significant motivating factor, and Wenger is convinced that whoever lines up on Wednesday night will be able to keep this run going - as long as they maintain their focus.
“You keep stability and you look at just winning the next game,” the manager said. “We’ve won six [Premier League] games in a row, but it was not always the same team that won. At the moment I am just looking at how players recover, what is the next game and how we can win the next game.
“We play three home games this week and we are maybe the favourites in every single game, or expected to win every game.
“We know as well, and we learnt on Saturday against Swansea, that as soon as you ease off a little bit you’re in trouble because the differences between teams is very small.
“Ludogorets have lots of experience in the Champions League now and I watched the game against Paris Saint-Germain. They are a very good side.
“What sometimes look like kind fixtures can turn out to be very difficult if we don’t prepare mentally. We have to show that we are an ambitious team with an ambitious squad, and show that we can turn up in every single game.”
ONE TO WATCH
One man has dominated the headlines this week in the wake of yet another outstanding performance: Theo Walcott.
The Arsenal forward has looked a man reborn this season, and his two goals against Swansea - while not his most eye-catching - speak volumes about the improvements he has made to his game.
|Arsenal: Giroud (toe), Ramsey (hamstring), Mertesacker, Welbeck (both knee) Ludogorets: None|
The first, in which he muscled aside Jordi Amat to poke home at the near post, showcased the extra layer of physicality he has added to his game. It was again in evidence for the second, as he forced his way into space in the box and fired in from close range.
Walcott now has seven goals in all competitions, and Wenger believes a change is mentality is paying dividends for the England international.
“What I’ve seen of him is that he lets the passion for the game come out of his body. That’s what you want from him,” the manager said.
“I’ve felt that since he’s played with more freedom, maybe he lets his feelings come out a bit more and is less calculating - ‘can I do that or can I not do that?’
“He plays with more freedom and more desire. I think he has a less restricted attitude and that shows you that he is a completely different player.”
The Gunners head into the unknown on Wednesday night, having never faced Bulgarian opposition before in any competition.
|Alexis has had a hand in each of our last four Champions League goals (three assists and one scored) We have only lost three of our last 39 home games in the group stage, winning 30 and drawing six Arsenal have scored at least twice in their last eight group games at the Emirates, keeping five clean sheets in that run|
Ludogorets may not be the biggest name in the Champions League, but as Liverpool can attest - having drawn 2-2 with them in Sofia in 2014/15 before narrowly beating them at Anfield - they should not be underestimated.
Wenger has been impressed by what he has seen of the Bulgarians, especially in the 3-1 home defeat by PSG where they caused the French side real problems for much of the game.
“They have a lot of Brazilians,” he said. “It is a team that made a positive result against Basel and were in a position to beat Paris Saint-Germain [at one point].
“They are very well organised defensively and very dangerous on the break, with quick Brazilians up front.
“If we do not prepare well, we will have a bad surprise. It’s very important that we are really focused on this game.”
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