For all the upward progress Arsenal has made on and off the pitch during the past 12 months, Arsene Wenger finds himself tasked for the second successive year with overcoming Turkish football royalty in order to qualify for the Champions League group stage. This time Besiktas, not Fenerbahce, is the opponent.
In truth, the task should not be all that arduous. Last season, amid a wave of negativity generated by a summer of transfer inactivity and a 3-1 opening-day defeat at home to Aston Villa, the Gunners swatted aside Fenerbahce 3-0 in Istanbul and 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium to secure their passage.
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Besiktas went on to finish two places and 12 points behind champions Fener in the Turkish Superlig last season. It is here only because of its rival's two-year European ban for match-fixing. But it boasts a talented and popular new manager in Slaven Bilic and a high profile new goalscorer in onetime Arsenal target Demba Ba, and already has upset the odds by beating Dutch giant Feyenoord home and away to reach this stage.
Bilic has set about rebuilding his reputation in Turkey after a failed stint at Lokomotiv Moscow and already earned popularity with Besiktas’ left-wing ultras, the Carsi, with his passion and a successful brand of what he calls “socialist football”. His team is built around a hard-working domestic core and drilled to exploit any mistakes by the opposition.
Three of the five goals Besiktas scored in two games against Feyenoord sprang from pressuring defenders in the opposition half. In the first leg in Rotterdam, it was ruthless, scoring twice from its only two shots on goal. In Istanbul it got the ball to Ba, who ran riot with a hat trick.
The former Chelsea man may start alone up front, but Bilic is more likely to pair him in the home leg with Mustafa Pektemek, a burly 26-year-old with three goals in seven appearances for Turkey. Together they make for a physical, predatory duo who will provide new signing Calum Chambers with a stiff test in his first ever Champions League match alongside Laurent Koscielny.
If he goes with two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation, Bilic will rely heavily on his two central midfielders to disrupt Arsenal’s passing rhythm. His preferred pairing against Feyenoord was Veli Kavlak and former PSV star Atiba Hutchinson, but the Canadian is struggling with a hamstring injury and may be replaced by Necip Uysal.
Whichever two men Bilic selects will be up against a fluid three-man Arsenal midfield and, with Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez frequently drifting inside from the flanks, Wenger will be confident of emerging with a clear enough superiority in this crucial area to dictate and eventually win the match.
With Bilic’s central midfielders pre-occupied with destructive duties, the main creative threat in this Besiktas team will likely spring from the flanks. Arsenal will already be vaguely familiar with former Fulham man Kerim Frei Koyunlu on the right, but Mathieu Debuchy will need to be particularly vigilant on the opposite flank to shackle Olcay Sahan, the team’s No. 10 and main playmaker who boasts formidable work rate to match his skill and considerable pace.
But even if Besiktas finds joy in attack, Arsenal will fancy its chances of scoring at least once itself in Turkey. Feyenoord, lining up in a conventional 4-3-3, netted home and away even in comprehensive defeat. With the clever movement of Cazorla and Sanchez, the well-timed forward runs of Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud’s ability to bring his teammates into play in the final third, the Gunners are capable of giving their opponents a whole new world of problems.
Ultimately Arsenal’s biggest test could well be dealing with the emotion of the home side. Bilic already has sought to light a fire under his players and the fans, describing Tuesday’s clash as “a massive game not only for this generation, but for the history of Beşiktaş." He also has promised his team will not turn up to take selfies with the Gunners stars or swap shirts with them.
But Wenger and his team are familiar with the challenges of playing in Istanbul, having met them emphatically a year ago. They know what to do and, barring any catastrophes, should head back to north London on Wednesday with one foot in the Champions League group stage.
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