ATHENS: A December visit to Athens has become almost an annual event on Arsenal's calendar but, in standing tonight on the precipice of unknown territory, the contrast with previous matches inside the atmospheric Karaiskakis Stadium could hardly be greater.
Arsenal had already qualified in 2009, 2011 and 2012 when their final Champions League group game mirrored this fixture and Arsene Wenger felt sufficiently relaxed about a pre-Christmas trip to Greece to supply a team-sheet that could easily have been mistaken for the academy register.
The stakes are considerably higher tonight when Arsenal will be out of the Champions League if they do not win by a margin that equals or betters the 3-2 margin of their September defeat by Olympiakos. Failure would break what is not only a proud record of reaching at least the last 16 of the Champions League in every season since 2000 but also one of the central threads in any defence of Wenger's recent tenure.
Upon his arrival last night at Athens airport, Wenger underlined the "big significance" of this moment but there was also a message for both sets of players. To his own team, Wenger highlighted the need for "patience" and "composure" in not chasing too recklessly for the minimum two goals that are needed. For Olympiakos, it was simply pointed out that, after missing one chance to clinch qualification against Bayern Munich last month, it is the Greek champions who now have everything to lose.
"It is against a side that is at the moment qualified but can lose what they have," Wenger said. "That can create a fear factor."
Wenger also noted how Arsenal had previously been "everywhere and won" in Europe although past wins at the San Siro, Bernabeu and the Allianz Arena are mitigated by the more recent history of agonising failure. This was again the pattern last season when, after a 3-1 home loss to Monaco, their 2-0 away win was rendered futile.
Comparable experiences against AC Milan and Bayern Munich prompts the question of whether Arsenal can now break this cycle. "From Monaco, especially, we can learn from what happened," Wenger said. "I believe we played quite well, with the right patience, until the last 10 minutes when we rushed."
That it has even come to this looked unlikely after Arsenal were beaten by Dinamo Zagreb as well as Olympiakos in their opening two matches in Group F. After such a poor start, a theory was soon formed that it might actually be beneficial for Arsenal to exit the Champions League at the group phase and fully focus their attentions on what is such an unusually open Premier League title race. It is an argument that was predictably rejected last night by Wenger.
"Of course we will be dangerous if we go through because we come from far back," he said. "At the moment we have two or three super-favourites for the Champions League and whoever else gets through will have to chase them."
The prospect of Thursday night football in the Europa League is also not being contemplated. "We just want to give absolutely everything to qualify," Wenger said. "We know we can do it, the team will be highly focused. If you want to jump over a hurdle you don't think about what happens if you miss. If you fall down, then you respond. If you want to have a chance to get across the hurdle, you have to give absolutely everything to get over it."
Arsenal have already discovered to their cost once this season that Olympiakos represent an easily underestimated hurdle. Their only defeats all season have been against Bayern Munich and their record in the Greek league stands at a perfect 12 wins from 12.
The atmosphere will also test Arsenal's collective temperament. Away fans were banned earlier in the year in domestic Greek football following episodes of violence and the Arsenal supporters in Athens are being advised to avoid public transport. The team is in a collective phase of adaptation amid the current absence through injury of Francis Coquelin, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla from Wenger's favoured starting line-up. Aaron Ramsey will again be paired with Mathieu Flamini in central midfield while Theo Walcott is expected only to be a substitute following a month out with a hamstring injury. That would again leave Olivier Giroud spearheading Arsenal's attack.
"Of course we believe," Giroud said. "If not, the club would have sent the youth team. We have the opportunity to show our mental strength. We need to be at 100 per cent - 95 will not be enough."