Arsenal: How Much Do They Need Their World Cup Winners for Besiktas Clash?

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Arsenal: How Much Do They Need Their World Cup Winners for Besiktas Clash?
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

For the second time in as many seasons, Arsenal will travel to Istanbul for their Champions League play-off, but with fitness worries surrounding certain quarters of Arsene Wenger's squad, an early return for his World Cup-winning German contingent might be unavoidable.

With limited respite for the Gunners following their last-ditch opening-day victory over Crystal Palace, and with defensive starters Kieran Gibbs and goalscorer Laurent Koscielny both receiving knocks on Saturday, Wenger might need to call upon Per Mertesacker and his compatriots Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski to bolster his options.

Early signs from London Colney suggest that Laurent Koscielny trained with the squad ahead of the first leg of the Besiktas tie, but his readiness should still be considered touch-and-go until the Tuesday night kick-off.  Calum Chambers, particularly impressive in the Crystal Palace game, should retain his position for his first taste of the continent's elite competition.  Yet if Koscielny and Gibbs are unfit to face Besiktas, who completes the back four along with him and Mathieu Debuchy?

From the squad's current options, choice is thin. Nacho Monreal could slot in at left-back, but that leaves a hole at centre-back where former club captain Thomas Vermaelen would have ordinarily slotted in—now that the Belgian is calling Catalonia home, Wenger has no other senior centre-backs at his disposal bar Mertesacker.

If Laurent Koscielny is unfit to face Besiktas, who should take his place alongside Calum Chambers?

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Given the significance of the tie, it wouldn't suit an inexperienced youngster to come in at short notice alongside another in Chambers, despite the effective start to his Arsenal career.  Not just because of the magnitude of the fixture is this a problem, however—the fine form and unpredictable nature of their opponents breeds cause for concern also.

Besiktas swept aside Feyenoord over two legs in the previous round in a 5-2 rout on aggregate, with former Chelsea and Newcastle man Demba Ba impressing with a hat-trick in the return leg.  While the Senegalese international might be the only easily recognisable name from Besiktas' personnel, that's not to say his new team-mates aren't effective enough to cause Arsenal problems.

Arsenal are no strangers to travelling to Istanbul, hardly the most hospitable of football destinations, following their successful trip to Fenerbahce this time last year.  However, given their previous hosts' poor performance, they must expect stouter resistance from Besiktas on Tuesday, especially with the Black Eagles being in the fine fettle that they are.

With this in mind, Wenger really must plump for the experience, stability and command that having Mertesacker in the ranks offers.  The Guardian's Dominic Fifield suggests Mertesacker and teenage full-back Hector Bellerin will both travel, if only on standby, but the German's leadership and presence is so much more of an asset on the pitch than from the bench.

At the same time, it's easy to understand Wenger's hesitation to play Mertesacker and his German compatriots so soon after their late return to training.  Afforded a longer break following their victorious campaign in Brazil this summer, the German triumvirate will likely not be at peak fitness and will surely show signs of rust in their first outings of the season, whenever they may come.

Clive Mason/Getty Images
A long-standing Achilles issue might prevent Laurent Koscielny's involvement in Istanbul.

The wealth of midfield and advanced options afforded to Le Professeur do not necessitate the accelerated returns of Ozil and Podolski. It would be nice, of course, to have them available, but theory dictates that the longer they spend recuperating after a summer's worth of efforts, the fresher they will be upon their eventual returns.

Without the same luxury in defensive reserves, Wenger is faced with a troubling dilemma.  Is having Mertesacker at the core of Arsenal's defence, whether or not he's at full fitness, the answer to this particular positional conundrum?

This is a match in which Arsenal cannot afford to leak goals.  Playing Mertesacker, even if not at full match fitness or mental readiness, is surely a better option than playing someone else out of position to compensate, whether that's moving Monreal inside, utilising Mathieu Flamini as a left-back as has been done in the Frenchman's first Arsenal stint or something else entirely.

It may well prove that Koscielny is fit enough to play—even then, having the German's presence among Wenger's substitutes is a boon in itself, knowing that a capable deputy is available should anything go awry.

In the worst-case scenario, however, Mertesacker has to not only travel, but utilise his willpower and perseverance to contribute a magnificent performance where his match fitness and heightened mental capacities might be lacking.

For two of the Gunners that lifted the Jules Rimet in July, the holiday isn't quite over.  For the third, it might have just finished.

 

 

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