For the second year running, Turkish opposition stands in the way of Arsenal taking their place among Europe’s elite in the Champions League group phase. Last season, Arsenal negotiated a tie with Fenerbahce via a 5-0aggregate win, and manager Arsène Wenger will dearly hope for similarly drama-free progress in another playoff tie of huge import, this time against Beşiktaş. Simply put missing out on the prestige and financial rewards of the Champions League proper would be devastating.
The encouraging aspect for Arsenal is that they travel to Istanbul for the first leg on Tuesday in far better spirts than when making the same trip 12 months ago. Then, Arsenal had just been beaten at home by Aston Villa in their first match of the Premier League season during which there were widespread protests against Wenger and the perceived lack of ambition shown by the club in the transfer market. But the record signing of Mesut Özil soon followed and, while a title challenge faded disappointingly, the lifting of the FA Cup ended a nine-year trophy drought. Another major signing, Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez, this summer has further raised expectations.
An opening-day win over manager-less Crystal Palace was not as straightforward as many expected, but Aaron Ramsey picked up where he left off last season with a priceless late winner. And Wenger is under no illusions about the importance of securing a place in the Champions League for the 17th consecutive season, five of the last seven of which have been achieved through a make-or-break qualifier.
“We are desperate to do it because we want to play in the Champions League and we know how big these games are,” he said, reports Arsenal’s official website. “We had to give a lot [against Crystal Palace], hopefully we will recover and be ready for Tuesday night. We are desperate to go through, no matter what it costs we want to go through. We have always a difficult draw, we had Fenerbahce last year, this time we have Beşiktaş. It's difficult.”
Wenger has previously hinted that their fate in the playoff could play a part in his plans to further strengthen his squad before the close of the transfer window at the end of August. One area that he will surely be looking to reinforce regardless is at center-back. Following the sale of Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona, Wenger has only Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and 19-year-old new signing Calum Chamber as established options. And Arsenal could be further stretched against Beşiktaş, with Koscielny struggling with fitness after playing the full 90 minutes on Saturday and Mertesacker still not up to speed following the World Cup winner’s late return to preseason training.
“We will assess Koscielny on Monday; if he's fit and capable to play, we play him” Wenger said. “It was our plan to bring the Germans back in contention for Everton. But in case of emergency I will take Mertesacker. But we have [Héctor Bellerín], who was 19 today, who can come in. we are a bit short. I hope Koscielny responds well to today's game.”
There is hope that Koscielny will feature having trained on Monday. The same cannot be said for Kieran Gibbs, who was forced off with hamstring problem in the second half on Saturday. His replacement against Crystal Palace, Nacho Monreal, will likely start instead.
Arsenal will be taking on a Beşiktaş side that does not begin its league season until August 30, but which has already had its competitive-instincts tuned in getting past Dutch side Feyenoord in the Champions League third qualifying round. Last season Beşiktaş finished third in the Turkish Süper Lig, 12 points behind champions Fenerbahce, in what was the first campaign under the charge of former West Ham United and Everton defender, and Croatia coach, Slaven Bilić. The 45-year-old, has admitted that Arsenal were from his chosen opponents.
“Arsenal were the last team we wanted,” he told the Daily Mail. “I’ve watched Wenger’s teams for nearly 20 years and they are always quick, lively and play football. But it’s not my philosophy to think we have nothing to lose because they are the favorites. **** that. It’s an alibi. I am also under pressure as manager of a massive club.”
As well as Bilić, there will be another member of the Beşiktaş party familiar with Arsenal. The club’s major signing of the transfer window has been former Chelsea striker Demba Ba, who Arsenal tried to sign on loan last summer and who scored a hat-trick in the second leg against Feyenoord.
Prediction: With Beşiktaş’ Vodafone Arena being redeveloped, the match will take place at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. While it is an impressive venue and there should still be a fierce atmosphere, Beşiktaş could lose something with the absence of their home comforts. It is still far from a straightforward task for Arsenal after a tough win at the weekend. Still, Wenger’s men should have the quality to come back from Turkey with a win for the second year running.
Beşiktaş 1-2 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1