Whenever Arsenal finish fourth in the Premier League, the achievement is always met with a curious mix of emotions. There’s usually a touch of relief, as it means the club have avoided the effective relegation to the Europa League. However, there is trepidation, too. Clubs that finish fourth in the Premier League face the perilous play-off before they can secure their Champions League spot.
This year, Arsenal will face Besiktas.
It’s a tie that Arsene Wenger would have been eager to avoid. The primary concern will be the length of the trip. Sandwiched around the congested opening of the Premier League campaign, a trip to Turkey and back is hardly ideal.
Arsenal were forced to do the same last season, but they emerged as comfortable winners in their tie with a disorganised Fenerbahce. They can not expect such an easy passage this time around.
Arsenal have never faced Besiktas in competitive action, so this will be something of a trip into the unknown. The Turkish outfit are a strong side managed by a sharp technician in the shape of Slaven Bilic. Bilic has earned a reputation as an astute coach and outstanding man-manager. It’s certain he will have his team highly motivated for their clash with Arsenal.
There will be a few familiar faces lining up against Arsenal. First and foremost, Arsenal will come up against their own youth product, Oguzhan Ozyakup. The intelligent midfielder threatened to make the breakthrough with Arsenal before being sold back to his homeland, where he has developed into a reliable midfielder and full international.
Besiktas’ greatest threat probably comes in attack, especially having recently added to their squad by recruiting Demba Ba from Chelsea. Ba nabbed a hat-trick in the previous round and enjoys a healthy record against Arsenal. The Gunners defence will need to be sharp to prevent him from adding to his Turkish tally in this qualifying tie.
That will be the area of greatest concern for Wenger. With Jeremy Wilson of the Daily Telegraph (via BBC Sport) reporting that Thomas Vermaelen is on the verge of completing a move to Barcelona, Arsenal are very light at the back.
With Per Mertesacker still recovering from his World Cup exertions, Wenger could be forced to pair Laurent Koscielny with inexperienced new signing Calum Chambers. Although Chambers has looked comfortable at centre-half throughout pre-season, all his senior football has come as right-back. Fielding him in the middle at Champions League level would be a significant gamble.
Arsenal will also be attempting to bed Mathieu Debuchy into a new-look back four. Although Debuchy is an experienced and reliable campaigner, it is always unsettling moving clubs. Bilic, Ba and Co. will be eager to exploit any uncertainty in the Gunners ranks.
Arsenal cannot afford a slip. Having assembled an expensive and extravagantly gifted squad, they absolutely need to be in the Champions League. Besiktas promises to be a tricky trip, but if Arsenal hold their nerve, they ought to have enough to emerge on top.