Unbeaten since the opening weekend of the season and flying high in the Premier League, Arsenal will attempt to secure its place in the knockout phase of the Champions League in Bulgaria on Tuesday.
Fresh off a 6-0 dismissal of the same opponent at the Emirates Stadium two weeks ago, Arsenal will take on Ludogorets once more, this time at the home of the Bulgarian champions. A victory combined with a win for Paris Saint-Germain away in Basel in the night’s other group game would guarantee the Gunners progress with two games to spare.
With all currently rosy at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal will not just be eyeing qualification for the round of 16 but for the first time in seven seasons doing so as a group winner. After a 1-1 draw in Paris in the opening match of the group, Arsene Wenger's squad is level on points with PSG and will welcome the French champions to London in three weeks’ time.
Wenger has been open about the significance of going through as group winner.
“Yes, this is our prime target,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “But we must do it step by step. In the last years, we have paid the price of being second as we met teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the first knockout stage. It is very important for us to win tomorrow otherwise we may find ourselves in difficult situation."
Arsenal continued its rich vein of form on Saturday, brushing off a brief second-half fightback from Sunderland to win 4-1 at the Stadium of Light and stay level on points at the top of the Premier League with Manchester City and Liverpool.
That win came despite the absences of Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Nacho Monreal. And the injury problems are mounting, with Héctor Bellerin now also a confirmed absentee for Tuesday’s encounter after suffering a problem in training. But Wenger was boosted at the weekend by the return to form and fitness of Olivier Giroud.
Having seen his season get off to a stuttering start due to injury and a Euro 2016 hangover, Giroud came off the bench to score two goals with his first two touches against Sunderland. He now provides an additional option up front, joining Alexis Sánchez, who has thrived in the central striker role this season.
Since going down to a heavy defeat in London, Ludogorets has taken out its disappointment on its domestic rivals. Three straight victories with 13 goals scored have taken Georgi Dermendzhiev’s side back to the top of the league table as it chases its sixth successive title.
Ludogorets is hoping to have learned the lessons from two weeks ago. And in its Romanian striker Claudiu Keșerü, the team has a player with direct knowledge of the in-form Giroud. The Romanian was on loan at French side Tours with Giroud seven seasons ago.
"I don’t think we will lose 6-0 this time,” Keșerü said in a press conference on Monday. “We have learned a lot from the first game in London and I hope we will do much better. I know very well Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud from our spell at Tours in France. What I remember is that their qualities were obvious even there and I am not surprised they are now playing at the highest level.”
Prediction: Ludogorets coach Dermendzhiev has hinted that he will slightly curtail his attacking philosophy on Tuesday after the heavy defeat handed out to his side at the Emirates. Still, the gulf in class between the sides, coupled with Arsenal’s fine form should ensure another comfortable win for Wenger’s men.
Predicted Score: Ludogorets 1-3 Arsenal