Talk of a crisis may well be premature after just one match of the season -- regardless of everything that has led up to it -- but a poor result for Arsenal in Turkey on Wednesday night and the battle lines at the Emirates will be truly entrenched like never before.
Throughout the recent trophy-less seasons, Arsene Wenger has claimed with no little justification that qualifying for the Champions League represented an achievement worthy of a cup. As the club tried to compete on a budget distinctly lower than their rivals, extending a record of making it into Europe’s premier competition for 15-straight seasons certainly warranted praise. There were plenty of close shaves along the way, not least last season when Arsenal went on a stunning late run to make the top four once more.
That was supposed to represent a turning point. With bold statements of Arsenal’s new financial power, world-class signings were expected to ensure that qualifying for the Champions League became a mere consolation prize to once again challenging for the game’s biggest trophies. Yet, with less than two weeks of the transfer window remaining, not a single penny has been spent on transfers. A 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday exposed a squad that has been trimmed during the summer and is once again beset by injury problems. Failure to progress past Fenerbahce and make it into the lucrative and prestigious Champions League group stage is unthinkable for Wenger and the rest of those in power at the Emirates.
Arsenal have been regular participants in these qualifying ties in recent seasons and the events heading into this latest one bear stark comparisons with those surrounding their meeting with Udinese in 2011. Then a lack of spending and a rash of injuries saw Arsenal flirt with disaster before eventually progressing past the Italian side. Still, an infamous 8-2 defeat to Manchester United in their following match and a subsequent array of panic buys was not so impressive. It is that sense of déjà vu that is so frustrating to many Arsenal supporters.
But Wenger might well take a repeat of the scenario from two years ago, if it means progressing past Fenerbahce. The Turkish side have plenty of problems of their own, however. Indeed, a match-fixing case that has been ongoing since 2011 could yet mean that they could be eliminated from the Champions League even if Arsenal are defeated.
On the pitch, too, the season has not started well. More than £25 million has been spent during the summer in strengthening the squad on the likes of Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emmenike, Portugal center-back Bruno Alves and Turkey midfielder Alper Potuk. But, after losing the Super Cup to bitter rivals Galatasaray, their league campaign got off to a woeful start as Ersun Yanal’s side surrendered a 2-0 lead to newly promoted Konyaspor and went down 3-2.
Fenerbahce were without former Liverpool man Raul Meireles and fellow-midfielder Mehmet Topal at the weekend and both remain doubts for Wednesday. Meanwhile, right-back Gokhan Gonul is still on the sidelines, meaning another appearance for Mehmet Topuz. It is that position that Arsenal could well look to target as a weakness. That may see Wenger play the more direct Lukas Podolski down that flank and play Santi Cazorla inside.
Arsenal’s main weakness appears to be in central midfield. With Mikel Arteta out injured and no defensive midfielder signed, Wenger could again have to rely on the partnership of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. Aston Villa exploited this forward-thinking, lightweight partnership with runners from deep on Saturday and Fenerbahce could well have success doing the same. Unless, that is, Wenger brings in the more naturally-defensive, but inexperienced, Emmanuel Frimpong. Arsenal will have to do without Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, although the other players that picked up knocks on Saturday, notably Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, should be fit.
There should be goals in this one and Arsenal may just be able to come away with a score draw that Wenger will likely be delighted to take back to the Emirates next week.
Prediction: Fenerbahce 1-1 Arsenal
Betting Odds Arsenal are favorites to get the victory in Istanbul, priced at 13.10 with Bet 365. A Fenerbahce win is valued at 2/1, with a draw available at 12/5.
Where to watch: The Champions League playoff first leg will kick-off from the Sukru Saracoglu at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Sports 1, with a live stream available via a free trial to Fox Soccer 2Go.