Champions League failure would derail Arsenal’s season
Arsene Wenger’s job will not be on the line when Arsenal faces Olympiakos in a do-or-die fixture for the club’s UEFA Champions League hopes (live, Tuesday, FS2, FOX Sports Go, 2:30 p.m. ET).
But the pressure from the supporters will once again start to weigh on Wenger if the Gunners fail to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition for a 16th season in a row. Arsenal was supposed to stroll through this group with Bayern Munich, yet the club faces an unenviable task in Athens, where it arrives having lost three of five Champions League matches so far.
The fluctuation between hope and disappointment, expectation and anger, has defined Arsenal’s campaign in Europe. The team suffered embarrassing defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos. It secured a historic home win over Bayern and then duly got smashed to pieces in the return game in Munich.
The north London club does not deserve to progress to the last 16 — the stage at which it has been dumped out of the competition in the last five years – but the Gunners at least have a chance at the Karaiskakis Stadium. Wenger’s side must win by two clear goals or by any margin if it scores three goals or more.
It is an intimidating task against an Olympiakos side that has won all 12 of its domestic fixtures this season, has beaten Arsenal in their previous three encounters in Athens and is unbeaten in six homes Champions League ties against Premier League opposition. It is tempting to expect some sort of brave failure in the same manner that the team beat Monaco 2-0 in the second leg of their last 16 tie last season only to be knocked out on away goals.
It would be yet more proof that the current squad, despite back-to-back FA Cup triumphs, remains a group of nearly men. The priority this season is to win the Premier League but how will they handle the pressure of the run-in if they can’t even qualify from a straightforward Champions League group?
Their carelessness in Europe could cost them even more if they fail on Wednesday and have to drop down to the Europa League. It is a competition in which Wenger has almost no interest but would add nine matches and thousands of miles of traveling to Arsenal’s season should the club progress to the final.
There has been much cause for optimism for Arsenal this season. The side sits second in the Premier League table, it has beaten Bayern and blown away Manchester United, while Mesut Ozil is in sensational form. But after one win in the last four league outings and a constant stream of injury problems, there is a feeling that the campaign is heading for an inevitable disappointment.
Almost all hope will be resting on Ozil as Wenger is expected to name another patched-up starting XI that reflects an injury crisis that has gotten out of hand and threatens to derail the season. Star forward Alexis Sanchez has returned to Chile and is not expected to return before the New Year because of a hamstring problem while first-choice central midfielders Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin are both sidelined for months with knee ligament injuries.
It is likely to cost Arsenal, particularly with the likes of Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky all still out as well. Wenger desperately needs to put out his strongest side in Athens, but Arsenal’s Champions League hopes will instead rest on the likes of Mathieu Flamini and Joel Campbell.
Should Arsenal succeed, it could provide a turbo-boost to the club’s season as it targets a first Premier League triumph since the Invincibles in 2004. More likely, though, is a failure that will sum up why so many Arsenal fans have little faith in this team.