Despite finally avoiding one of Europe’s giants in the Champions League Round of 16, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger does not believe his side start their matchup with Monaco as favorites to reach the quarterfinals. Arsenal have been knocked out at this stage of the competition for the last four years, having been handed ties against Barcelona, Milan and, twice, Bayern Munich. But, despite again finishing runners-up in their group this season, Arsenal were handed a draw with the side that, on paper, was the weakest of the group winners.
“I don’t know if we are favorites or not, for me it is a 50/50 game,” he said at his press conference. “But even if there is pressure on the game, that’s what you want. The worst thing that happened in my career is to play games without any pressure. I love that because there’s a lot at stake.
“What has happened in the last four years we have gone out twice against the winners of the Champions League. What we have learnt is that it was either on [away goals] or because of one goal, which shows you that every single minute of this game will be absolutely massively important. We have gone out, yes, but only just. We want to stay in, even if it is just.”
For Wenger, the match represents a first ever contest against the club he managed for seven seasons. It was at Monaco that Wenger built his reputation as a coach, culminating in reaching the semifinals of the Champions League in 1994, before being dismissed a short time into the next season.
“It’s interesting,” Wenger said. “I’m happy that Monaco are back at the top level but I’ve been manager of Arsenal Football Club for 18 years and I’m focused on just qualifying for the quarterfinal against a good side.”
Arsenal go into Wednesday’s first leg at the Emirates Stadium on a fine run of form that has seen them win eight of their last nine games to move up to third in the Premier League. That has put Arsenal in a strong position to return to the Champions League for an 18th successive season. But success in the competition has alluded them, with a final in 2006 and a semifinal place three years later the best Arsenal have managed.
Just reaching the knockout phase can be considered a success for Monaco in their first season back in the Champions League after a 10-year absence. Having allowed the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao to depart as the massive spending that was initiated to get Monaco into the Champions League was dramatically scaled back, the side this season has been built around a miserly defense. Under coach Leonardo Jardim, Monaco conceded just once in the group phase, only scoring four times themselves. And the side fourth in Ligue Un have allowed just three goals against in their last 17 matches in all competitions.
But Monaco go into the match at the Emirates without suspended key midfielder Jeremy Toulalan and injured trio Ricardo Carvalho, Andrea Raggi and Tiemoué Bakayoko. But, despite slight knocks, Layvin Kurzawa and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco have made the trip to London. Arsenal have no new injury problems, but Jack Wilshere is unlikely to feature despite returning to fitness after an ankle injury.
D: Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal
M: Cazorla, Coquelin
Welbeck, Ozil, Sanchez
D: Fabinho, Wallace, Abdennour, Kurzawa
M: Kondogbia, Moutinho
Dirar, Silva, Ferreira-Carrasco
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, ESPN Deportes