Jack Wilshere leapt to the defence of his Arsenal team-mates whose temperament was savaged by Troy Deeney in the aftermath of the defeat at Watford last weekend. “As a player if your attitude is questioned it’s horrible,” Wilshere said. “I don’t think the comments were justified.
“When we look back at what we did wrong I don’t think you can question our character. We will move on. We have a game tomorrow and another big one Sunday [at Everton] and the players can bounce back, we’ve see them do it. As players we haven’t spoken about it. I’m sure individually players are disappointed but comments are part of the modern-day game and we have to deal with that.”
Arsène Wenger confessed that the narrative hurts. “I know who my players really are,” the Arsenal manager said. “I love my players and trust their ability to respond quickly. Everyone is entitled to talk. Sometimes after the game the enthusiasm of what happened went overboard. We don’t listen too much to what people say and try to analyse our own game and get on with it.”
Arsenal arrived in Belgrade still caught up in the emotional maelstrom that followed a poor defeat at Vicarage Road. On the one hand the Europa League offers some kind of escape from Premier League pressures. On the other, they will face a team in strong form at an intimidating arena. The Marakana, as Red Star’s stadium is known locally, was once one of Europe’s legendary hotspots with a capacity of 100,000. Nowadays it holds roughly half that but is still capable of creating a feverish atmosphere, especially for contests that are eagerly awaited. The sense of anticipation in Belgrade is highly charged.
It promises to be a stern test for the young players who will form part of the team’s backbone. Particularly in defence Arsenal are notably under strength. It speaks volumes that the senior player to marshall the rearguard is likely to be Rob Holding, with the prospect of Mohamed Elneny filling in or the inexperienced Josh Dasilva getting drafted into the back line. Mathieu Debuchy has been catapulted back into the side after his latest lengthy absence. The Frenchman has played for only 16 minutes over the past two and a half years. “He has not played for a long time because every time he is close to coming back he is injured again. Hopefully he gets through. He certainly starts,” the manager said.
Wenger hopes that the challenge will be something the youngsters relish rather than fear. “We have the habit to deal with that at every stadium in England and we had a long experience in the Champions League. I don’t think there will be a negative impact. We expect a game with a huge commitment from everybody.”
Red Star have happy memories of knocking Arsenal out of the Uefa Cup in 1978. Cvijetin Blagojevic, who was part of that team and now scouts for Red Star, hopes the current generation can aspire to echo past success. “It smells like it,” he said. “At that time we played ‘tiki-taka’ football, the kind Barcelona plays now. We called it ‘crazy tiki-taka’. What Barcelona play today is just a copy-and-paste from that. People from the Barcelona youth academy came to Belgrade to see how we worked. We were ahead of our time, but now we are still at the level of 40 years ago. It is sad, but I hope better days will come.”
Arsenal (3-4-3) Cech; Debuchy, Holding, Elneny; Nelson, Willock, Coquelin, Maitland-Niles; Walcott, Giroud, Wilshere.
Red Star (4-2-3-1) Borjan; Stojkovic, Le Tallec, Savic, Rodic; Kriszicic, Donald; Srnic, Kanga, Radonjic; Boakye.