Not since the final year of the last century have Arsenal failed to make it past the first group stage of the UEFA Champions League. While they haven’t achieved all they might in the competition, reaching the final just once and bowing out at the last 16 for the last five seasons, their consistency, at least, has been admirable. But all that could change on Wednesday, when Arsene Wenger, the man who has masterminded that streak, will lead his side into a do-or-die decider in Greece.
A dismal 3-2 defeat to the same opponents at the Emirates Stadium in September means that Arsenal need to beat Olympiakos by at least two goals in Piraeus, or claim a one-goal victory when scoring at least three goals. Anything else and it will be Olympiakos that progress behind Bayern Munich, leaving Arsenal to face up to the Europa League next February. It is a huge task, for a host of reasons.
First, there is the fact that on each of Arsenal’s three visits to the Karaiskakis Stadium, all since 2009, they have suffered defeat. And Olympiakos’ home record is phenomenally strong. In the whole of 2015, the Greek champions have suffered just one loss, and that was against the mighty Bayern Munich. As if that weren’t enough, Olympiakos come into Wednesday’s fixture having just secured a record 13th straight win in the Greek Super League, maintaining their perfect start to the season under new Portuguese coach Marco Silva.
In contrast, Arsenal don’t exactly come into the fixture in the rudest of health. Of course that is truest in a physical sense, where Wenger is faced with what has become an annual injury crisis. Alexis Sánchez and Santi Cazorla have in recent days been added to a list that already includes Francis Coquelin, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky. Both Sánchez and Cazorla were sorely missed on Saturday.
While Arsenal came through to beat Sunderland 3-1, it was not exactly an impressive display. The slick passing of Cazorla was conspicuous by its absence in central midfield, while Sánchez’s incredible intensity with and without the ball was also lacking. Even with Theo Walcott now back in contention after returning off the bench on Saturday, the absence of Cazorla and Sánchez means there is likely to be a place in the starting lineup and a key role for one man with plenty of happy memories at the Karaiskakis Stadium.
Campbell spent one of his several loan spells away from Arsenal at Olympiakos in the 2013-2014 season, scoring 11 goals, including one in the Champions League against Manchester United. And the Costa Rican has done a decent job since injuries finally provided him with a long-awaited chance in the side, four years after signing for Arsenal. Campbell has scored two goals from his three Premier League starts, including one on Saturday. He knows, though, how difficult it will be the get the required result on Wednesday.
“In the Pireo [Karaiskakis Stadium] it is very difficult to get points but it is the last game of the group stage and we will give our best,” he said, according to Arsenal’s official website. “It is the most important game of the season so far. It will be a cup final and we have to win to continue in the Champions League.”
Prediction: Arsenal’s insipid start to the Champions League has left them in a real hole going into the final round of fixtures. Even for a full-strength Arsenal it would be a real challenge. Much will depend on Mesut Özil, and his ability to pull the strings, despite being without two players he connects with so well, in Sánchez and Cazorla, as well as whether Aaron Ramsey can thrive on his strength of getting forward into the opposition box. It is not beyond Arsenal’s capability, but with Olympiakos performing well under Silva they should be good enough to get the result they need, potentially with Wenger’s men securing yet another glorious failure on the European stage.
Predicted score: Olympiakos 1-2 Arsenal