As reports emerge that they will be without striker Olivier Giroud for the remainder of 2014, Arsenal face a nervy night in order to avoid another massive early blow to their season. On Wednesday at the Emirates Stadium Giroud will be missing with an ankle injury, now believed to be worse than first feared, as they seek to progress to the Champions League group phase. A goalless draw with Beşiktaş in the first leg of their tie in Istanbul last week leaves little room for error. An away goal from the Turkish side would leave Arsenal needing to score twice to avoid falling into the Europa League.
It is a position not exactly alien to Arsenal. They have qualified for the lucrative and prestigious group phase for the past 16 seasons, making it through qualifiers six times during that time. Yet this is the first tie in which Arsenal have not taken a lead into the second leg. Last season Arsenal beat another Turkish side Fenerbahce 3-0 away before finishing the job at the Emirates. Still, manager Arsène Wenger believes Arsenal’s experience could be a big factor in a match which he insists holds greater significance on the pitch than off.
“It's a very important game because we want to play at the top level, on an international level,” he said, according to Arsenal’s official website. “[It’s crucial] more on the sporting side than on the financial side.
“Of course our experience plays a big part. We have a big experience in the Champions league, big experience of playing high-pressure games. We can use that on Wednesday. What is more important is the performance on the day, to turn up with a strong display. I am confident this group is strong, is mentally prepared, has a great togetherness and is ready for the fight.”
As well as Giroud’s absence through his injury picked up in a 2-2 draw with Everton on Saturday, Arsenal will also be without two casualties from Istanbul. Mikel Arteta picked up an ankle problem in the second half last week, while Aaron Ramsey is now suspended having been shown his marching orders for picking up two yellow cards. Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott also continue to be sidelined, although Yaya Sanogo is in contention with Alexis Sanchez to start up front.
Beşiktaş will be looking to spoil the party and secure a group phase berth for the first time in five years. Despite a credible result in the first leg, coach Slaven Bilic was, somewhat understandably, disappointed not to have garnered an advantage. Former Chelsea striker Demba Ba, a man Arsenal tried to sign to ease their dependence on Giroud last summer, hit the crossbar straight from the opening kickoff and should have done better with other presentable chances.
Still, Beşiktaş have arguably already exceeded expectations in Europe. After finishing third in the Turkish Super Lig last season, they only qualified for the Champions League due to a European ban for champions Fenerbahçe. In the third qualifying round of the Champions League they then impressively ousted Dutch side Feyenoord. At the Emirates, former West Ham and Everton defender Bilic could have key midfielder Atiba Hutchinson back available.
Prediction: This has all the signs of being a tense night for Arsenal. Despite the absence of goals, the first leg in Turkey was actually very open with chances for both sides against defenses that looked less than secure. Arsenal could be helped by reuniting their first-choice center-back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker for the first time this season, although Mertesacker looked rusty against Everton. There will also be concerns going forward. Giroud made a major difference when he came on at the weekend, with the team still not looking on the same wavelength as Sanchez in a lone striking role. Still, while it likely won’t be comfortable for the Emirates crowd, the greater quality in Arsenal’s ranks should see them pull through.
Arsenal 2-1 Beşiktaş
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1