Champions League Playoff, First Leg Preview

Arsenal will need to overcome atmosphere and injuries to earn a result

The ink isn’t even dry on the articles praising our 6-1 victory at Goodison Park on Saturday, and already we have a massive Champions League encounter upon us. And since the games are already coming thick and fast, we had to really work hard to pick up some injuries quickly. Mission accomplished. Our historic win over Everton came at a potentially high price with Cesc, Sagna, and Denilson all in doubt for tonight’s crucial match. To make matters worse, it appears that Walcott is still out with back problems. One match into the new season, and already the manager has a major selection headache.

It would be a real shame if Cesc, Sagna or Denilson missed out tonight. Last season we struggled for a variety of reasons, but our lack of regularly fit first choice players was chief among them. In Wenger’s system, fluency is everything and it’s difficult for players to achieve fluency on the pitch when they’re constantly being rotated out of the squad due to injury. Cesc and Denilson’s injuries are of the greatest concern because there’s little cover for them.

Eboue can certainly do a job at right back, but who would Wenger call upon to replace the midfield duo? Diaby is fit again, but hasn’t seen much action. Ramsey is available, but I fear it’s too big an occasion for a player that has seen only sporatic first team action. Realistically, that leaves only Wilshere and Merida and they are even more inexperienced than the young Welshman. I just can’t imagine Wenger calling on them in this situation.

So then the question is clear; if all three players are unable to start, who will Wenger call upon to fill the void. I think he would have to consider moving Arshavin into the midfield with Diaby and Song. Eduardo could then start as the lone striker with Van Persie moving out to the left and Bendtner again deputising on the right. Arshavin would essentially play Cesc’s role in midfield and could shine in the center of the park. After watching Cesc get two goals from that position at the weekend, and seeing the freedom he had to join the attack, I think it’s a perfect place for Arshavin to play. He doesn’t give us the defensive mettle that Cesc can provide, but Diaby and Song should be able to help enough defensively.

There’s always the chance that Wenger eschews the 4-3-3 for a more conservative 4-5-1 in this match, but considering the success we enjoyed at Everton, it doesn’t seem necessary. More importantly, we looked solid on defense in that match which should give Arsene the confidence to stick with the formation tonight. Regardless, I’m looking for a big game from Arshavin who was relatively quiet on Saturday but should be eager to impress on the grand stage after being unable to play in Europe for us last season.

No matter what Arsene Wenger decides to do with his lineup, the focus is really on Tony Mowbray and his cryptic comments about his tactics for tonight’s game. Mowbray said all the right things about being confident ahead of the game and not “looking up in awe at the Premier League.” He pointed out his teams recent results in Europe against Manchester United, Barcelona and AC Milan. But then he added this interesting insight regarding his strategy for the match,

“There is a cunning plan, but it is only a cunning plan if we win – it’s a shambles if we don’t! I know that if we get beat, everyone will say ‘what’s he doing?’ That’s the way football is. So we look forward to the challenge.”

If you have any idea what the heck he is talking about, I’d be curious to know. I’m sure we’ll get a look at this “cunning plan” soon enough, but my hope is that his plan is to start eleven ‘keepers in an attempt to thwart our attack. Something tells me that’s not it. If I had to guess, knowing a little about Mowbray’s footballing ethos from last season, I’d say that he’s planning to send out an attack minded side with the intention to come at us. I can only hope we’re so lucky. Arsenal can counter attack with the best of them, and we thrive against sides that try to play football with us. Maybe it can be done when you have talent like Manchester United, but I doubt very strongly that Celtic can live up to that standard. If Mowbray is intending to beat us at our own game, then he’s likely to find out that few teams can play our game as well as we do.

A lot has been written in the build-up to this game about the atmosphere at Celtic Park and the challenge it will pose the visiting Gunners. There’s no denying the intensity of the support at Parkhead and the way it can lift the home side to over-achieve. After all, Celtic have earned some famous results against massive clubs at home in the Champions League in recent seasons. As I read more articles about the match, I found myself buying into the notion that the atmosphere at the ground might overwhelm our young Arsenal side. But then I thought about last season.

Last season’s Champions League campaign saw us visit a ground whose intimidating atmosphere quite possibly exceeds that of Celtic Park. If you remember, we travelled to the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium in Turkey to face Fenerbache and amidst the cauldron of noisy, ferocious support we came away with a swashbuckling 5-2 victory. The support from the Fenerbache fans was unlike anything I’d seen before, but we held our nerve and let our quality shine through. If memory serves, I don’t believe an English team had won on that ground before.

In the second leg of our first knockout round matchup, we travelled to the home of the most violent supporters in all of Europe. In Rome, where the “ultras” intimidate fans and law enforcement alike, we managed to maintain composure through 120 nerve-demolishing minutes only to show even more mettle by emerging victorious in the penalty shoot-out.

Celtic Park may have a special atmosphere tonight, and it might even prove a little unsettling, but if these players can survive the Saracoglu and Rome’s Olympic stadium, and get results against arguably more talented sides than Celtic, then surely we can find a way to win in Glasgow. Atmosphere can lift a side, but ultimately quality should decide this match and we have the edge on the pitch.

Tonight’s result is crucial to continue the good work and build on the encouragement from Saturday. But mainly it’s just about getting into the Champions League group phase. Nothing else will do. We probably can’t lose the tie tonight given Celtic’s poor form in European away fixtures, but we can likely kill it off with a win. It’s a match that could get off to a nervy start, but I’m hopeful that once our players get their legs under them, and realize their superiority in talent, we can take control of the game. We might not have our first choice team on the pitch, and we might not have most of our second choice team on the pitch, but with players like Arshavin, Van Persie, Eduardo, Song, Diaby, and so on, we should still have enough.

I put forward a theory a few weeks ago that Arsene’s transfer budget was dependent upon qualifying for the Champions League proper. With that money in the bank, we could spend what had been pocketed from our two major sales this summer. I’m increasingly convinced that I might have been right about that. But I do believe that Arsene might be give the approval to spend sooner if we bring home a comfortable win tonight. And with that in mind, add Rafael van der Vaart to the list of players being strongly linked with Arsenal.

We’ll know about our injured players in a few hours. And a few hours after that, with thirteen days still left in August, we will kickoff a massive European tie. It’s hard to believe that such an important match is upon us already, but here it is. It’s another early season chance for this team to put down a marker. And after an exultant start to the league campaign on Saturday, hopefully our European debut can bring similar triumph. The atmosphere at Celtic Park will certainly be something to behold, but our football should be something to behold as well. I can’t wait.


About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
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3 Responses to Champions League Playoff, First Leg Preview

  1. Isabela says:

    The only thing I will rmbmeeer about him will be the two goals he got against united his first season. That was huge. The rest was nothing to write home about. I truly don’t care about him. If gervinho can pull his giant fivehead out of his arse in front of goal and get a few, he’ll be a better player for us anyhow. 11  0

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