Arsenal will have to swing into gear fairly quickly if they are to progress to this season’s Champions League group stage after drawing Besiktas in the play-off round. Besiktas were awarded the second Champions League spot after Turkish champions Fenerbahce were banned from competing by UEFA due to involvement in a match-fixing investigation.
Wenger and his team should not view Besiktas as merely a warm-up to the group stages though, as Slaven Bilic’s men are determined to continue the good form that helped them eliminate Feyenoord in the previous round.
Key to Besiktas’s resurgence as well has been their considerable attacking prowess, which has been bolstered more so by the acquisition of Demba Ba from Chelsea. Arsenal will be well acquainted with the threat posed by Ba during his time at West Ham, Newcastle and Chelsea and considering he is fresh off a hat-trick on his debut against Feyenoord, they will be fearing his appetite for goals.
Directing Ba and his team-mates, of course, is one the great managerial characters in Europe- Slaven Bilic. The former Everton player gained a sterling reputation as one of the finest young managers in the game during his spell as Croatia’s manager and is driven to ensure that he is not a forgotten manager in Europe after a disastrous spell with Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia- where their ninth-placed finish in the league was the club’s worst since 1992. However, Bilic has been steadily rebuilding his reputation in Turkey and will relish the opportunity of taking on a top English side like Arsenal.
Slaven Bilic has proved to be flexible when it comes to formations. The 45-year-old can switch from 4‑1‑3‑2 to 4‑2‑3‑1, 4‑3‑3 or 4‑4‑2 – but usually in some sort of modified, unorthodox fashion. He does not think formations play a crucial role and is far more likely to rely on individual instructions as one of the few who is prepared to employ five or six attack-minded players. Bilic has always built his teams on attacking football but will also possess the intelligence to realise that trying to out-score Arsenal will be a foolish exercise. Arsenal, armed with new £32m signing Alexis Sanchez are likely to be as dangerous as ever and Besiktas simply do not have the depth to contain the Gunners at the back if they continually push men forward. Bilic is clever though and will likely get men behind the ball and frustrate Wenger’s team, relying on the work-rate and predatory instincts of Ba up front when they get the chance.
A part of Besiktas’ game-plan though will undoubtedly be the application of their fans as the 12th man. Turkey has long been considered one of the most intimidating countries for English teams to travel to and historically don’t have a great record. Manchester United experienced the full extent of Turkish fans hostility when they were greeted with “Welcome to Hell” banners in Istanbul airport ahead of playing Galatasary in 1993. That match ended 3-3 after a relentlessly dramatic tie that threatened to boil over as fans whipped up a frenzy against United in acts of intimidation. Besiktas will pack 40,000 passionate fans into the Vodafone Arena and won’t need much encouragement in making Arsenal feel as far away from home as possible.
All things considered, Arsenal look very promising bet over two legs but Besiktas’s quality should not be entirely discredited and will be as hungry as ever to return to the Champions League group stages after playing in the Europa League for the last three seasons. The tie is likely to remind fans why they love European football so much and explode the Champions League back into life following its annual summer hibernation.