FOX Soccer Exclusive
Bruised Arsenal stumble into Turkey
It seems unusually early to be calling Arsenal a “club in crisis.” That cliché normally gets trotted out around January, after a series of horrible losses but ahead of their traditional face-saving late-season run.
This isn’t the same old Arsenal.
Something seems fundamentally different at the London club after a summer in which the Gunners were linked with a half-dozen players, and then failed to sign a single one. There seems to be both a lack of depth and of morale at the club, and with critical players -- Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and possibly Bacary Sagna -- out for Wednesday’s critical Champions League playoff against Fenerbahce (live, FOX Sports 1, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET), what was expected to be a fairly routine home and away set against a team the Gunners have never lost to has turned into a crucible.
Arsenal’s woes are self-inflicted, of course. The club cleaned house this summer, shipping out 17 players, differing only in their degrees of disappointment -- but then failed to land a single credible reinforcement. That lack of depth was brutally exposed in an awful opening-day loss to Aston Villa. But it should not have been a shock: the Gunners were poor in pre-season, and their youth team has been on the wrong end of some hidings of late. Arsenal simply doesn’t have enough quality up and down the ranks.
Arsenal’s needs are well-known: a keeper, defenders, midfield cover and a proven scorer. But the Gunners have sat atop their pile of loot and watched the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Julio Cesar, Luiz Gustavo, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Williams all pass them by. And then there was the peculiar and clumsy bid for Luis Suarez which managed to alienate both Liverpool and Arsenal’s own fan base. “What do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates?” wondered Liverpool owner John Henry on Twitter.
Now, Arsenal stumbles into a critical series against Turkish side Fenerbahce with a berth in the lucrative Champions League on the line. Arsenal have not lost to Fenerbahce in four meetings -- winning twice and playing to two scoreless draws -- and, as it happens, have never lost a Champions League playoff. Failure to progress would be a devastating blow.
The match is hardly a given. The Surku Saracoglu is about as intimidating an atmosphere as you can get in world football, a 50,000 strong cauldron that is known for rowdiness. (The arena made history of a sort in 2011, when Fenerbahce staged a game in front of only women and children: all male supporters had been banned from attending after outbreaks of violence.) And Fenerbahce have both talent and an ache for redemption.
Striker Moussa Sow has made the leap from Ligue 1 to the Superliga seamlessly, racking up 23 goals in 47 appearances with the Turks. The Senegalese hitman can both create and score, and his burly presence up top gives defenders fits. Normally playing as part of an attacking trident alongside Pierre Webo and former Liverpool darling Dirk Kuyt, Sow now has Nigerian Emmanuel Emenike to work off of after the former Spartak Moscow man moved for a reported $17m.
The Yellow Canaries also added Leverkusen’s Michael Adlec and Zenit playmaker Bruno Alves as part of a revitalized left flank. Raul Meireles and Cristian Baroni make up an aging but competent midfield with Mehmet Topal sitting in the slot.
But Fenerbahce also has some unresolved issues: they’ve actually been expelled from the Champions League for match-fixing in the Turkish league in relation to their 2011 title, and are awaiting a decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport to see if they will be able to keep their place. Their case goes to tribunal only hours before kickoff, and the CAS is scheduled to hand down their decision on August 28 -- one day ahead of the Champions League Draw.
The club and its players have vociferously protested their innocence in the matter, and while many in Western Europe think that the CAS will find the club guilty, others aren’t so sure. Metalist, who were also banned for match-fixing, had their appeals to the CAS rejected out of hand -- perhaps indicating that the court finds some weight to the Turks’ argument. If Fenerbahce are found guilty, they would be ejected and Arsenal would progress.
But the Gunners certainly don’t want to be saved by the court. The Gunners will get Nacho Monreal back for the match and were heartened when Sagna (neck) was fit enough to train. He is still a game-day decision, and the team may travel with young Hector Bellerin as cover. Kieran Gibbs will be playing with a bandage over his left eye after taking a freak cut against Aston Villa; Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky are all passed fit.
The Gunners do have a home return to look forward to next week. And perhaps by that point, Wenger and his club will have closed a deal for any of the dozen players they have been linked with. But there is little cause for optimism right now in North London, and a lot of anxiety heading into Wednesday night.
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