To the edge of Europe on the edge of crisis. Arsenal seem to have an uncanny ability of discovering such places before August is out.
It is only the second game of his season but Arsene Wenger found familiar problems forming here as he prepared for Wednesday’s Champions League play-off first leg against Fenerbahce.
The constant scrutiny of his transfer policy is clearly wearing thin and he snapped at the idea that close rivals, particularly Tottenham, were recruiting well.
‘Honestly,’ said Wenger in exasperation before he stressed his 16 years of Champions League football and north London superiority.
‘I’ve heard that for 16 years now.’
The transfer window being open after the start of the season has a destabilising effect, but Wenger teased those posing the questions in his press conference by suggesting he might start taking their advice on training sessions.
‘What is important in football is to see a good football game,’ said Wenger. ‘All that other stuff is good for the newspapers but it is not real football. What is real football is the quality of the game.
‘I would just like to reiterate to you that, in the last 16 years, we have been very successful with transfers, and if you look at the players who play, they are top quality. You should never forget that.’
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It did not seem the moment for jokes about at least being in the right city to buy a player who has become known, thanks to Joe Kinnear, as Yohan Kebab, especially not when Yohan Cabaye seemed to be heading for Paris Saint-Germain.
‘It’s not down to me to explain to you everything I do,’ said Wenger on the Cabaye issue, although he did explain he had not intended to harm Newcastle. ‘You can’t reproach us on one side for not buying and yet on the other side, when we try to buy, reproach us as well,’ he said.
Wenger demanded focus on the Fenerbahce game, one Arsenal dare not and should not lose, though anxieties are creeping in.
The optimistic summer sound-track of new financial clout, Jack Wilshere on the mend, young players developing fast and pre-season promise from the likes of Olivier Giroud have gone — drowned out by the gloom of missed transfer targets, injuries exposing a thin squad and a home defeat by Aston Villa full of all the old defensive frailties.
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The Villa result sparked protests in the stands. Fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 1997 and much-needed recruits will think twice about signing. The last thing Arsenal need is for any of their remaining targets to cool on the idea.
Wenger has never failed in this department but factors have turned against him, not least injuries which continue to pile up.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the latest addition to a list which includes Thomas Vermaelen, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s posterior cruciate knee ligament problem will keep him out for at least six weeks, said Wenger, though Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna and Nacho Monreal hope to be fit for Wednesday night.
As ever in Istanbul, the first task will be to silence the crowd as Arsenal did on their last trip to the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium for a 5-2 win against Fenerbahce in 2008.
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‘You have to be aware of the first 20 minutes,’ said Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s captain in the absence of Vermaelen and Arteta. ‘You have to keep them as quiet as possible and that’s hard. We need to be ready for defending properly. We are not qualified yet.’
Arsenal won nine and drew two of the final 11 games of last season, a run which began with a win away at Bayern Munich, which was not enough to reach the Champions League quarter-finals but inspired belief.
It was a sprint finish to overwhelm Tottenham and it is hard to fathom how such hope can be destroyed so soon by reluctance to pay spiralling transfer fees.
Fears were compounded by that opening day defeat by Villa, a result Wenger called ‘accidental’. Not for the first time there is an air of disorder as he goes into a sixth Champions League play-off tie in the last eight years.
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Two years ago Arsenal were drawn against Udinese at a time when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were negotiating exits from the Emirates. Wenger rode it out, beating the Italians.
His record for reaching the Champions League is impeccable. Clear this hurdle and it will be a 16th successive year in the competition.
Turkish football is enjoying one of its cyclical peaks. Galatasaray reached the last eight of the Champions League last season and Fenerbahce made the last four of the Europa League.
‘It will be tough but we have the power,’ said manager Ersun Yanal. ‘We are a quality team. We want to go to England in front. I trust my players and I think we will win the first leg.’
Yanal’s team led 2-0 and lost 3-2 to Torku Konyaspor on Saturday but he said: ‘I believe we will show a different identity.’
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Even so, it is nearly 45 years since Fenerbahce won a two-legged tie against an English team — Manchester City — and Arsenal even have a potential safety net.
Fenerbahce’s appeal against a two-year UEFA ban for match fixing goes before the Court of Arbitration for Sport today in a hearing scheduled to last two days. The verdict is expected next Wednesday — the day after the second leg — and, if the appeal is rejected, Fenerbahce will be ejected from European football.
When Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv were expelled for match fixing this month, they were replaced by Greek side PAOK, whom they beat in qualifying.
Fenerbahce have already beaten Salzburg, who could also argue their right to a reprieve.
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