The task awaiting Arsenal as they travel to Olympiacos for their final Champions League group stage game on Wednesday is both simple and difficult (7.45pm on BT Sport).
The Gunners will progress to the knockout phase with any victory by a two-goal margin or a win by a one-goal margin that sees them score at least three times. The outcome of Group F’s other clash between Dinamo Zagreb and Bayern Munich will have no bearing on who progresses alongside Pep Guardiola’s imperious outfit, with Olympiacos knowing that a draw or even a narrow defeat would be enough to see them through.
Although things are thus rather straightforward in terms of understanding the mission in hand, achieving it will be a great deal harder for Arsenal. The Greek champions have only lost once at home in the last year – a 3-0 defeat to Bayern in September – and will be in confident mood after extending their lead at the top of the Super League to 13 points at the weekend.
Arsenal, in truth, really should have wrapped up qualification before now. An opening-day loss to Dinamo was followed by a 3-2 defeat by Olympiacos at the Emirates which left Arsene Wenger’s men facing an uphill struggle to reach the round of 16. An unexpected triumph over Bayern reignited their hopes of finishing behind the Bundesliga side in second, but a 5-1 thrashing in Germany a fortnight later meant Arsenal could not afford another slip-up. The home clash with Dinamo was negotiated with a minimum of fuss two weeks ago, but those two losses in their first couple of games mean that the 2005/06 runners-up have it all to do to reach the second stage 10 seasons on.
It is difficult to know what the reaction would be were Arsenal to finish third and drop into the Europa League. If Wenger ends the north Londoners’ 12-year Premier League title drought at the end of the campaign then all will be forgiven, but an early exit from the Champions League will likely be used as another stick to beat the Frenchman with should Arsenal’s championship challenge fade away in the latter months of the season.
This is therefore a huge game for Wenger, who admitted to being “more nervous than usual” during his side’s 3-1 victory over Sunderland on Saturday. Arsenal’s customary autumn-time injury crisis – Theo Walcott may be fit enough to start but Alexis Sanchez, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and long-term absentees Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky are definitely out – has seen Wenger receive a large amount of criticism in recent weeks. So a victory by the requisite margin would help to alleviate some of the pressure that continues to hover over N7 despite those precious three points against Sam Allardyce’s in-form charges at the weekend.
Qualification may be Olympiacos’ to throw away, but Arsenal’s greater size, financial muscle and quality of player means that – to a certain extent – the pressure is on the visitors rather than the hosts on Wednesday night. Indeed, the Piraeus-based outfit have only competed in the knockout stage once in the last five seasons and probably never considered progression this time to be a realistic objective.
Former Premier League players Esteban Cambiasso, Pajtim Kasami and Brown Ideye will be among those out to secure the result that Olympiacos need. Manager Marco Silva will be keen to pull off what would be a fantastic achievement just five months after taking charge at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium.
Wednesday’s meeting is an extremely difficult for this match preview to call. In spite of their injury woes, Arsenal should have enough to secure all three points, but Olympiacos will be confident of keeping the score down even if they are to lose. It is notable that the Greeks have conceded only 18 goals in 28 home matches in 2015, and they will be confident of doing damage on the counter-attack as Arsenal inevitably push forward as the game wears on.