Arsenal know what they have to do, the question is: Can they do it? On Wednesday, the Gunners will face Olympiakos aware that their Champions League fate rests on the outcome of one fixture.
They are 90 minutes away from progression to the last 16, or early elimination and the consolation prize of a Europa League berth. Not since 1998/99, their first dalliance with a rebranded competition for European football’s elite, have they crashed out at the first hurdle – with the experiment of playing home games at Wembley backfiring on them somewhat.
Arsene Wenger’s men have been a model of consistency since then – with the last five seasons seeing them come undone at the first knockout stage.
— Héctor Bellerín (@HectorBellerin) December 5, 2015
There is no guarantee that they will get the opportunity to break that sequence this term, with history having to be made in midweek if at least one more Champions League night is to be taken in at the Emirates in early 2016.
Arsenal know they have little or no margin for error, with victory by two clear goals required to carry them through. Normally, you would back the Gunners to make a good fist of such a challenge, but the record books and an ever-lengthening injury list are conspiring against them. Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Danny Welbeck are among those unavailable to Wenger, while all of those connected with the club will need no reminding that three previous visits to the Karaiskakis Stadium have delivered three defeats.
Arsenal have, however, made a habit of producing coupon-busting performances this season – good and bad. A 2-0 reversal against West Ham United on the Premier League’s opening day came as a surprise to many, League Cup betting markets were bucked as Sheffield Wednesday sent them crashing out of that competition, Bayern Munich were stunned in north London as a forgettable continental campaign finally sprung to life, while the Gunners remain the only side to have inflicted a league defeat on surprise package Leicester City.
Anything, it would seem, is possible when Wenger’s men are involved. It is for that reason, and with the all-or-virtually-nothing nature of the contest taken into account, that they should travel to Athens believing that they can get the job done.
For that to happen, though, they will need someone – preferably more than one person – to join a rather elite club. In the aforementioned defeats away at Olympiakos, only two goals have been mustered – with six conceded. A 1-0 defeat back in 2009 was followed by a 3-1 setback in December 2011 – with Yossi Benayoun netting his only Champions League effort of a season-long loan at the Emirates.
A crashing half-volley offered the Gunners hope on that occasion, following some rather calamitous goalkeeping from Vito Mannone at the opposite end of the field – who had only entered the fold following an injury to Lukasz Fabianski. Things were not much better a year later, with Arsenal taking the lead on Greek soil, but conceding twice in the second half to go down 2-1.
Tomas Rosicky was the man to find the target, sweeping home from 12 yards out after being teed up by Gervinho. Arsenal, then, know the way to goal and what they must do in order to secure a potentially season-defining result, but they are going to have to write an impressive new chapter in their illustrious history if they are to complete a Champions League rescue mission.