Arsenal face injuries, dilemmas ahead of crucial match vs. Besiktas
AUG 26, 2014 12:30p ET
Arsenal should be all right. The hardest part of the job, getting away from Istanbul without a defeat, is done, and now all Arsenal needs to do is beat Besiktas at home (live, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports Go, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) to secure a 17th straight appearance in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. But there is a doubt -- and that doubt is the lack of an away goal.
Besiktas showed little in that first leg to suggest Arsenal should be afraid of them. Demba Ba had a couple of decent chances, but there was never a sense of Arsenal clinging on, even after they had gone down to 10 men following the dismissal of Aaron Ramsey. The best opportunity of the game, in fact, went to Arsenal after Ramsey's dismissal as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shuffled across the box and struck a shot that was superbly turned onto the post by the Besiktas goalkeeper Tolga Zengin.
But still, the thought lingers that if Besiktas scores one, Arsenal will have to score two: No side can ever feel comfortable after a goalless draw away from home. It would be a dreadful irony if Arsenal, having finally begun spending serious money in the transfer market, and having paid off sufficient of the debt incurred in funding the construction of Emirates Stadium, suddenly found a regular income stream shut off.
Those doubts are heightened by two major issues of personnel facing Arsenal for the second leg. Olivier Giroud, always a forward who divides opinion, has had a strange start to the season. He came off the bench in the FA Community Shield victory over Manchester City, contributed a brilliant goal, and did next to nothing else. He came off the bench in the 2-1 Premier League win over Crystal Palace, but looked out of touch in the first leg in Turkey. That led to him being left out again against Everton on Saturday but when he came on at halftime, he changed the game. An early volley flashed just over but was evidence that Arsenal had a target to aim its crosses at, and then he headed in a fine late equalizer.
Just as the mood was swinging in his favor, though, it turns out that a knock he took to his ankle in that game will rule him out of Wednesday's crucial encounter. Depending how serious that is, that injury may have implications for Lukas Podolski's proposed move to Juventus, but in the more immediate term it presents a dilemma to Arsene Wenger.
He could use Yaya Sanogo, assuming he is recovered form a hamstring strain, as an -- almost -- like-for-like replacement for Giroud. Given the striker's inexperience that is a risk, although there does appear to be an intention on Wenger's part to give Sanogo greater responsibility this season. Or, he could do what he did in the first half on Saturday, which was to deploy Alexis Sanchez as a center-forward, dropping deep and pulling wide as a false nine. That wasn't particularly successful, but Besiktas is a very different team to Everton and this will be a very different game.
The other issue is in midfield. Mikel Arteta is injured, which means Mathieu Flamini will take his position at the back of midfield. And Ramey is suspended having naively been sent of for picking up two yellow cards in the first leg. Neither was for anything particularly grievous but the fact that he was lured into a shirt-tug while on a yellow card suggested, not for the first time, a lack of awareness.
There are various options to replace him, of which the most exciting is probably Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems in the process of being converted from winger to midfield shuttler. He has the energy and the technical ability for the role. There has been something in his recent appearances that has been reminiscent of Angel Di Maria, although it remains to be seen whether he has the Argentinian's tactical intelligence or understanding of when to release a pass.
Arsenal's other midfield issue is Jack Wilshere. Arsene Wenger has acknowledged it's a vital season for the 22-year-old who, having been hyped as the savior of the English game, has already been written off by many. Ramsey's recent form seems only to have highlighted the fact that Wilshere appears to have stagnated, the frustration of his critics zooming in on the fact he was photographed smoking a cigarette on his summer holidays.
Assuming he isn't a regular or heavy smoker, more relevant is probably the series of ankle injuries that seem to have sapped his pace. If that is a permanent state, then he may never be the thrusting aggressive force Arsenal and England fans hoped he would be. But he is only 22, and he'd only just recovered from a broken metatarsal in time to make England's World Cup squad. The length of time it took Ramsey to reach his peak form after suffering a broken leg in February 2010 should be warning not to expect too much, too soon.
But even with those enforced changes, Arsenal should have enough. Wenger spoke of the importance of the draw at Everton in maintaining Arsenal's belief and getting by Besiktas would keep the momentum of the past four months going. The key, though, is not to concede an away goal.