Heading into the final round of the Champions League group stage, Arsenal have only feint hopes of progressing to the last 16 as group winners. Yet, once again Arsène Wenger finds himself in a position of dearly needing a positive result and a performance to match in order to quell mounting unrest.
A 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund two weeks ago secured Arsenal’s progress to the knockout phase, and means they go into the final Matchday hoping for a win over Galatasaray in Istanbul coupled with defeat for the Germans at home to Anderlecht in order to finish first in Group D. That seems unlikely, as does Arsenal’s other method of coming out on top -- a draw for Dortmund together with a 6-0 win for the Gunners in Turkey. That Wenger shares in the pessimism over his side’s chances, is set to be reflected in his team selection at the Turk Telekom Arena.
“A few players [will not travel] because there’s not a lot at stake and we have given a lot in the last two weeks” Wenger said, reports Arsenal’s official website. “We have to recover a little bit. Alexis [Sanchez] will not travel and I don’t think I can play, for example, [Laurent] Koscielny. He didn’t play on Saturday and I don’t see why I should risk him for a game where’s there’s not a lot at stake. First place hypothetically, but there’s maybe a 10 percent chance.”
Finishing second and facing, on paper, a tougher opponent in the next round, as they have done when exiting in the last 16 for the last four seasons, would be far from ideal. But with the prospect of Arsenal going all the way in the Champions League this season entering the realm of the fantastical, Wenger, in truth, has more pressing concerns.
The impressive result against an admittedly lackluster, already qualified Dortmund team kick-started a run of three straight wins to lead Arsenal on a mini-recovery from a poor start to the season. But, as recent seasons have frustratingly shown, a new “crisis” is never far away. Arsenal only lost by a single goal at Stoke City on Saturday, but the manner of the loss at a venue where Wenger’s men have struggled so often, so similarly in recent years has brought the Frenchman’s leadership under fresh scrutiny and led some over-zealous fans to boo him onto a train back to London.
Arsenal’s defense was torn apart in the first half by a series of Stoke crosses that gave them a 3-0 lead at the interval. With Koscielny on the bench as he continues to be hampered by a long-term Achilles injury and Nacho Monreal also out, Wenger’s erring in ending the summer transfer window with just six -- at best -- senior defenders, was laid bare. Two teenagers, Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin, were exposed for their inexperience, while the most senior defender, Per Mertesacker, continued his poor form this season. A third defeat in their last five Premier League matches has dropped Arsenal down to sixth in the Premier League table and means that the limit of their ambitions is already once more securing continued participation in the Champions League next season.
The campaign has started even more tumultuously for their next opponents. Having reached the knockout phase of the Champions League for the past two seasons, expectations were high for Galatasaray under Cesare Prandelli. But the former Italy coach lasted less than five months, having been dismissed following a fourth straight Champions League loss two weeks ago that ended not only Galatasaray’s hopes of reaching the last 16 but also of securing a consolation prize of falling into the Europa League.
Since Prandelli’s departure, the Turkish giants have won three games on the bounce, with new coach, former Galatasaray winger and Turkey assistant coach Hamza Hamzaoglu, winning his first league match in charge on Saturday to lift Galatasaray up to second place.
Prediction: With little on the line, don’t expect this to be a match played at a frantic tempo. Arsenal tore Galatasaray’s suspect defense to shreds in a 4-1 win at the Emirates Stadium in October, and the pace of Danny Welbeck, likely to come back into the starting lineup, could again cause problems. But without key players Sanchez and Koscielny and with Galatasaray’s form on the rise, a draw maybe the best they can muster.
Galatasaray 1-1 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EST
Live stream: Fox Soccer 2Go