Arsenal FC have endured a frustrating summer on the transfer front, but, after a strong end to 2012/13 and with Jack Wilshere fit, hopes of a 16th successive UEFA Champions League campaign are high.
Arsène Wenger's team travel to Istanbul on Wednesday to take on Fenerbahçe SK in the first leg of the play-offs, seeking to take a big step towards preserving a proud record. Along with Manchester United FC (preparing for their 18th consecutive group stage) and Real Madrid CF (17th), Arsenal are one of only three teams ever-present in Europe's top club competition this century.
Wenger has been at the helm throughout as he enters his 18th season at Arsenal – his obsession, a club as close to his heart as it is his first name. Yet it has been a difficult summer, with the manager's declaration that "we will be active" in the transfer market thus far unrealised. To date the club have added only 20-year-old striker Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from AJ Auxerre.
Crucially, though, Wenger has not had to deal with a high-profile departure either – Robin van Persie, Alex Song and Cesc Fàbregas all left over the last two summers. There is also momentum from their form at the end of last season, which Arsenal ended 11 games unbeaten, and the fact that midfield keystone Wilshere has enjoyed his first injury-free pre-season since 2010.
The England midfielder, still not 100% fit according to Wenger, is eager to make an impression. "We feel we have a great squad, as we showed towards the end of last season, when we went 11 games unbeaten," he told Sport magazine. "If we can reproduce that form then we have a chance. When we had to get results, we went out there and got them, and that's what we need to take into this season.
"Arsenal used to be a team that won everything – trophies and titles, but now we haven't won anything for eight years, so we know what we have to do. It is time to start producing trophies and being closer to the top of the league at the end of the season. We don't just want to be fighting for fourth place – we want to be up there with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. We feel we are good enough to be there."
Things did not start well, however, with the Gunners opening their Premier League campaign with a 3-1 home defeat by Aston Villa FC on Saturday. They can at least draw optimism from the fact that they prevailed in their two previous play-offs, against Celtic FC in 2009/10 and Udinese Calcio the season before last, and despite the absence of the injured Thomas Vermaelen they will be confident of making it three. After all, this is the Arsenal team that gave all-conquering FC Bayern München an enormous scare last term – almost to a man.
The participation of Fenerbahçe in the competition is subject to pending disciplinary and CAS proceedings.
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