Sunday, July 22, 2018

Belgrade clash kicks off crucial week for Arsenal

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who admitted he didn’t recognise the team which slumped to defeat to West Brom at the weekend, faces a crucial week which could define his side’s season.

The Gunners’ Premier League aspirations will be under the microscope at Stamford Bridge on Sunday when they take on Chelsea.

But Tuesday sees a test of their backbone as well as their style in a tricky Champions League trip to Partizan Belgrade.

The Serbian side, playing in Europe’s elite event for the first time in seven years, have never won a home tie in the competition, but will have taken heart from the way that unheralded West Brom picked their way through a sleepy Arsenal backline in the 3-2 win on Saturday.

Wenger has little time to solve the mystery of that Emirates fiasco.

“I didn’t recognise my team and we have to sit down together to analyse what happened,” said the coach.

“Something was not right. It’s unusual to see a team as flat as we were.”

Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia was widely condemned for another poor performance and Wenger, who courted Fulham’s Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer in the summer, is believed to be lining up a bid for Liverpool’s Pepe Reina once the transfer window reopens.

But that is not until January.

Almunia has been ruled out of Tuesday’s game with an elbow injury and will be replaced by Lukasz Fabianski.

Wenger insisted Monday he would have played Almunia if the keeper had been fit.

“We have Manual Almunia out,” Wenger said. “He has a problem with his elbow. He caught it when he made the penalty on Saturday.

The French boss added: “(The goalkeeper) is always the easy target, the easy scapegoat.

“But we win together and we lose together even if people think he made a mistake on the second goal.”

Arsenal won their opening Champions League game 6-0 against Braga on the same night that Partizan lost 1-0 at Shakhtar Donetsk.

But the Gunners’ away record in Europe doesn’t make comfortable reading for Wenger with his team having lost their last three away games – 4-1 at Barcelona in last season’s quarter-final, 2-1 at Porto in the round of 16 and 1-0 at Olympiacos in the the group stages.

They have only won two of their last 10 away matches in the competition.

When Partizan last appeared in the Champions League in 2003/2004, they failed to win at home in five attempts, including two qualifying rounds.

But a defeat to Newcastle was their only loss, the other four games all ending in draws.

This season, they saw off FC Pyunik and HJK Helsinki in the qualifying rounds before defeating Anderlecht 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out win after two play-off games each finished 2-2.

Brazilian striker Cleo scored three goals over the tie, including two in the away leg.

Experienced midfielder Sasa Ilic will be expected to dominate proceedings in midfield for the Serbian champions.


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