Monday 19 March 2018

Seven reasons why Champions League progress is far from certain for Arsenal

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

Simon Rice

Arsenal play Besiktas tonight looking to put one foot into the Champions League proper.

The Gunners may feel a sense of confidence that they will progress through their play-off. After all, they've won all 12 matches of this sort that they've been involved in.

However, ahead of the first-leg of their play-off against the Turkish side, Arsene Wenger is among those warning the north London club getting ahead of themselves.

"It's a very difficult task and we know we have two difficult games," said Wenger. "Before speaking about anything else we know we have to put in two big performances against Besiktas."

Ahead of tonight's match, we take a look at a few reasons why delight in Turkey for Arsenal might not be a foregone conclusion.

1) Fatigue

Arsenal had to fight all the way against managerless Crystal Palace at the weekend, needing an injury time goal from Aaron Ramsey to ensure all three points were collected in their first game of the season.

An easier ride would have been preferable for Wenger's side, and with Everton sandwiched between the two-legs against Besiktas, fatigue could be a problem. “We had a short preparation, and we know that in one week we have three big games," Wenger said.

Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey celebrates after scoring the winner against Crystal Palace

2) Slaven Bilic

If you didn't know where the heavy-metal loving, chain smoking Slaven Bilic is currently working - now you do.

The hippest manager in football will be plotting Arsenal's downfall and while some of his stock may have disappeared since his time in charge of Croatia, there's no denying he knows how to cause an upset.

During his time as national coach, Bilic masterminded two victories over England and was almost single-handedly responsible for making Steve McClaren look a wally.
Croatia's soccer team coach Slaven Bilic. Photo: Reuters

3) Besiktas bonus

The opportunity for Besiktas' players to appear in the Champions League - the holy grail for most footballers - would probably be deemed enough motivation prior to the two-legged tie against Arsenal.

Despite that, a huge financial incentive has been dangled in front of them, with the players reportedly set to pocket £850,000 worth of bonuses if they overcome the Gunners.

4) Injuries

Arsenal are without two first choice defenders in the shape of Per Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs.

In addition to that, World Cup winners Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski remain unavailable and Yaya Sanogo didn't travel to Turkey.

Per Mertesacker concedes Arsenal have to improve against the top sides

5) Referee

Milorad Mazic has been selected to referee tonight's match. The Serbian may be a concern for Arsenal after he was criticised for his decision making during the World Cup. Portugal manager Paulo Bento said that Mazic "showed bias" during his team's 4-0 defeat to eventual champions Germany. Iran manager Carlos Querioz accused Mazic of not being at the right "level" after his side's loss to Argentina and wondered aloud: "How can this guy sleep tonight, or for the rest of his life?"

Pepe of Portugal is shown a red card and sent off by referee Milorad Mazic during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Portugal at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

6) Demba Ba

Besiktas striker Demba Ba wasn't too happy about being pushed out at Chelsea so will be relishing the opportunity against English opposition to prove Jose Mourinho made a mistake in letting him leave.

The Senegal international also came close to moving to Arsenal on numerous occasions and will be able to show what the Gunners missed out on with a good performance.

He's not shy of scoring against the Gunners either, netting twice against them in Newcastle's 7-3 defeat in December 2012.

Demba Ba made just 23 starts during his time at Stamford Bridge

7) Confusion

Arsenal's preparations have perhaps not been as smooth as they would have liked.

There was confusion over whether the Gunners were flying into Ataturk or Sabiha Gokcen airports, and then uncertainty on where their pre-match press conference would be held.

Added to that, tonight's game will be played at Besiktas’s temporary home of the Olympic stadium, most famous for Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League final win.

45,000 Besiktas fans are expected to make it a hostile environment, aided by the unveiling of Turkey’s largest ever hand-made banner, reading “La Vittoria Sara Nostra” (victory will be ours) with anarchist “a” symbols. Wenger said:

"Every challenge is different and beating a Turkish team away from home is very difficult but we want to perform at our best. Besiktas is on the back of a good result against Feyenoord, We’re on our toes and want to produce a good result."

Liverpool lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

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