Holding a commanding 3-0 lead and three precious away goals from their sojurn to Istanbul last week, only a collapse of epic proportions will prevent the Gunners from playing their 16th straight season in Europe’s grandest club competition.
So secure are Arsenal — and so poor were Fenerbahce last week — that Arsene Wenger may be tempted to rest some of his key players ahead of a stern test next Sunday: the North London derby against high-flying Tottenham. He has reason to gamble: injuries are a major concern for Arsenal, who have already lost Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for extended periods, and are sweating on the fitness of Laurent Koscielny after he suffered a suspected concussion in the first leg of the playoffs. Thomas Vermaelen remains out for another three weeks, meaning Arsenal are likely to deputize Bacary Sagna in the middle again next to Per Mertesacker.
For Fenerbahce — who have never defeated Arsenal — the task is immense. The club looked distracted and inept despite having several quality players, perhaps overwhelmed by both the occasion and the charges hanging over them. The Turks are scheduled to find out if they are even eligible to play in Europe this season on Wednesday, when the CAS will rule if their expulsion from European play on charges of match-fixing will stand or be set aside.
Schalke’s position is particularly precarious after injuries and losses have combined to put manager Jens Keller under the microscope. The Gelsenkircheners have yet to win a game this season, with an ugly 2-1 loss to Hannover leaving them hovering on the edge of the Bundesliga drop zone after just three games. The match was also marred by red cards with captain Benedikt Howedes and Christian Fuchs both getting sent off.
Schalke are missing firepower up top with key hitman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar out for at least three more weeks and are now waiting on the fitness of Jefferson Farfan and Joel Matip to boot for their crunch game against the Greeks. Also hurting: American Jermaine Jones, who Keller intimated may not be able to travel due to an injury.
PAOK snatched a late draw behind Miroslav Stoch and looked nothing like the second-chancers they truly are. PAOK are only in the playoff due to Metalist’s expulsion for match-fixing, and now look to make history: they have never competed in the Champions League group stage.
The odds look good as PAOK have lost just one of their nine games at home in European play and Schalke are ripe for the plucking. And PAOK manager Huub Stevens certainly has a personal stake in the matter as he was sacked by Schalke last season despite taking them into the Champions League’s knockout stages.
One other rub: this game will be played behind closed doors due to the club’s three-game fan ban after violence during last year’s Europa League tie with Rapid Vienna. How that affects the Greeks is up for debate.
Also of interest is the match in Warsaw, where Legia are trying to snap an 18-year barren streak in Europe. One of Poland’s biggest clubs, Legia have suffered on the European stage for years due to the Polish league’s general inability to provide meaningful competition, but they have yet to concede a goal this year at home in European play.
Steaua, however, have the grander pedigree, competing in group play as recently as 2008-09. They have also won both their away games in Europe this season, and will hope that is a harbinger at Warsaw’ notoriously raucous Stadion Wojska Polskiego.