Arsenal have been here before. Goodness knows they have been here before, and not only to the raucous Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens, home of Olympiakos, for the final tie of a Champions League group.
The club’s recent history in Europe’s premier competition has been marked by the demand to atone for disastrous first-leg performances, normally at the Emirates Stadium, in the knockout rounds. This remains a group stage game but the essence of it is precisely the same as Arsenal’s Champions League showdowns in each of the previous four seasons. They are head-to-head with Olympiakos, because of the way that the section has panned out, and for Arsène Wenger and his players the requirement is plain – they have to overturn the 3-2 defeat that the Greek champions inflicted upon them at the Emirates in September.
Wenger brought up the Monaco tie from last season, when he assessed how things stood with Olympiakos. His team lost 3-1 at home to the French club in the last 16 first leg and their 2-0 victory in the return added up to failure on the away goals rule. “The Monaco result will help us, although this is a different game,” the manager said.
Wenger might have mentioned any one of the previous do-or-die fixtures. In 2013-14 they lost 2-0 in the first leg of the last-16 game at home to Bayern Munich, before drawing 1-1 in Bavaria, and the season before, at the same stage, against the same opponents, it had been a 3-1 defeat in the first leg at home before a 2-0 win for an away goals exit.
In 2011-12 there was a slight difference. Arsenal were beaten 4-0 by Milan in the first leg of the last-16 meeting away from home. At the Emirates they won 3-0. It was not enough. With Arsenal, hard luck stories, coloured by degrees of glorious failure, have become the norm. They have tried to do but have always died.
“We have been here a few times before and we have come up short,” the midfielder Aaron Ramsey said. “We have been close, drawing on aggregate but conceding more goals at home. It is really difficult. But we know what we have to do and we believe we have enough quality to create the opportunities and score.”
Arsenal have effectively been charged with creating a piece of history because only once previously in 18 seasons of Uefa competition under Wenger have they overturned a first-leg deficit in a knockout tie. That was in 2009-10 against Porto in the last 16 of the Champions League. They lost the first leg 2-1 but won 5-0 in the return. The thumping victory came at the Emirates. In other words, in front of a rather more supportive crowd than they will encounter in Athens.
How Arsenal have paid for their performance at home to Olympiakos. It is what has pressed them to the edge and it is a reflection of the depths to which they sunk that not even the subsequent win over Bayern got them out of trouble. It merely served to fashion a lifeline.
It is entirely typical of Arsenal that they should beat Bayern at the Emirates and yet lose to Olympiakos who, to put it frankly, are opponents that they should be beating. Man for man, Arsenal are technically superior but they self-destructed on that night earlier in the season, when David Ospina’s horrible blunder for Olympiakos’s second goal was not the team’s worst moment. That accolade went to the collective breakdown that formed the backdrop to what proved to be the visitors’ winner, which came one minute after Alexis Sánchez had equalised for 2-2. All around the stadium there were the trappings of unbearable frustration.
With a full-strength team it would be easy to fancy Arsenal to pull off the salvage operation in Athens – or easier – but they have travelled without seven injured players; most crucially, Sánchez, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin. At least Theo Walcott is fit again to provide a much-needed attacking option.
Wenger suggested that Saturday’s nervy 3-1 home win over Sunderland had been a relief – ending, as it did, a run of three Premier League games without success – and he talked about how Olympiakos would be “a different game, psychologically”. But it is not difficult to see a team who are groping for rhythm and confidence.
Matters rest on the edge of a knife. Balance, and what the professionals call game management, will be fundamental. Arsenal, really, have to score first – Wenger has acknowledged this – but there will be no rush. There is absolutely no sense in them getting ahead of themselves, and the ball, to leave themselves open to what could be a fatal sucker punch.
Even if they scored the opening goal in the 80th minute, there would be time to find the winner. Arsenal have managed their recent second legs well and, apart from the 2014 tie against Bayern, they have put themselves in the position for a slingshot at victory. It has been their opponents who have felt the jitters. They have not, however, managed them quite well enough. This has to be the occasion when that changes. Familiarity underpins the tie. It is the fourth time in seven seasons that Arsenal have made the trip to face Olympiakos in December for a final group phase tie and, for Wenger, the memories have come back. There was the “Tom Cruise game” in 2009, when he named the left-back with the Hollywood name as part of the youngest starting lineup in the history of the Champions League; Kyle Bartley and Kerrea Gilbert were in defence alongside him. An 18-year-old Ramsey played and he was excellent.
There were also shadow sides in 2011 and 2012, featuring players including André Santos, Emmanuel Frimpong, Sébastien Squillaci and Jernade Meade because Wenger had earned the right to rotate. On all three occasions, Arsenal had already qualified for the last 16 and, on the first two, they were assured of top spot in the group. The other constant has been that, on each occasion, they lost.
Maybe, it did not matter. The stakes are somewhat higher now.