Speaking ahead of the teams’ first meeting in Istanbul, Arsene Wenger, as reported by Dominic Fifield of The Guardian, said “we are desperate to go through, no matter what it costs.”
The North London giants will be favourites to defeat the Turkish side, who qualified for the tournament as third-place finishers in the Super Lig after Fenerbahce, the champions, were banned due to the 2011 sports-corruption scandal in the nation.
However, one man who will be keen to stun the Gunners is Demba Ba, a striker who will surely be relishing a reunion with Premier League opposition only months after leaving the EPL.
Few players will head into this double-header more motivated than the Senegal striker.
Beyond the obvious prize of a spot in the Champions League group stage, there are two key factors that may spur Ba on to be the key protagonist in the meeting with Wenger’s team.
First of all, there is an evident unhappiness, on the part of the striker, in the way that he was spat out by Chelsea following his period of service at Stamford Bridge.
The striker hasn’t been slow to criticise Jose Mourinho since leaving West London. Despite bagging a respectable 14 goals in 23 starts for the Blues since joining from Newcastle United, Ba never truly enjoyed the faith of the Portuguese manager.
He was often left feeding off scraps, with Mourinho largely preferring Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o.
Nonetheless, Ba regularly proved his worth, not least with important goals against Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain in the Premier League and Champions League respectively, as well as a brace against Tottenham Hotspur and winners against Swansea City and Steaua Bucharest.
As reported by Joe Bernstein of the Daily Mail, since arriving in Istanbul, the striker has spoken out about his perceived mistreatment at Chelsea, “Sometimes when you are at a club with a lot of big stars, the name counts for more than the statistics.
"Unfortunately, it was like that in my case,” said the West African.
“But I am happy I moved from Newcastle to Chelsea and achieved what I did.”
The striker never truly got a fair crack of the whip at Stamford Bridge, particularly under Mourinho (he made only three Premier League starts in 2014) and will be desperate to both star in this high-profile tussle and claim a spot in the Champions League group stage.
Secondly, he will surely be keen to prove to Wenger what the Frenchman is missing out on.
Ba came close to joining Arsenal on several occasions, but Mourinho stood in his way.
“I always said the move to Arsenal was close. I thought the deal was done and I would just go and do the medical, but it went another way,” said Ba, as noted by Brad Pinard of London24.
“Jose has said why it didn’t happen. He was honest, he just didn’t want to give them a striker who could score goals, especially with the arrival of Ozil.
“Now I am playing Arsenal in such a big match. It’s crazy but I’ve no regret on everything that happened.”
The Senegal striker is a player who relishes the big occasion—he demonstrated this last season when given cameo roles against major opposition and also scored on his debuts for both Chelsea and the Lions of Teranga.
He continued the trend with Besiktas, bagging a hat-trick on his first start for the Turkish giants.
While this in itself is enough to endear one to any new fanbase, the context also contributed to Ba’s cult-hero status among the Black Eagles supporters.
Having made his debut as a 59th-minute substitute in the side’s 2-1 away victory over Feyenoord in the Champions League third qualifying round, Ba started back at the Vodafone Arena as his new club attempted to cement their place in the final play-off draw.
He didn’t disappoint.
Ba opened the scoring on the 28th minute before killing the Feyenoord comeback with a late brace—goals in the 80th and 86th minutes gave the Istanbul side a comfortable 5-2 aggregate scoreline.
Feyenoord are no minnows, their defence in Turkey featured two Dutch internationals in Joris Mathijsen and Terence Kongolo, but they were decimated by Ba’s incisive movement, powerful forward play and, perhaps most importantly, his expert finishing.
At Chelsea, Ba was a peripheral figure, and his reputation took a dip as a consequence.
But it’s easy to forget just what a fine record he has and how effective he can be in front of goal.
At relegated West Ham United, he managed seven goals in 12 games back in 2011, the Hammers would surely have avoided the drop had he arrived at the beginning of the season rather than in January.
Similarly, at Newcastle United, he averaged over a goal every other game, managing 29 in 54 Premier League appearances.
Few can argue that the striker is not awesomely efficient. He averaged a goal every 1.6 shots last season, while no player to have scored two or more goals managed it in fewer starts than the Senegal striker—Ba scored five goals in five EPL starts under Mourinho.
This season, in Turkey, against slightly weaker defences, Ba should flourish, as long as he stays fit.
He flexed his muscles against Feyenoord and, with the world (and Mourinho) watching, he looks poised to make a major impact against Arsenal.
The striker himself is certainly confident.
As reported by Okan Udo Bassey of Today’s Zaman, the Senegal forward had this to say about the upcoming clash. “Let everyone be relaxed,” the former Hoffenheim man told his teammates after the draw, “Arsenal, of course, is a big team. However, its greatness should not be over-exaggerated.
“If we play sensibly and put on a good fight, there is no reason why we cannot progress. And we have the ability to make this happen.”
Don’t be surprised to see Ba put himself back in the headlines against Arsenal, doing what he does best—scoring goals.