ATHENS (AFP) – Arsene Wenger has told his Arsenal stars to banish the fear factor as the struggling Gunners try to secure a first place finish in their Champions League group.
Wenger’s side travel to Olympiakos on Tuesday in desperate need of a morale-boosting victory after Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat against Swansea left the north London club teetering on the brink of a full-blown crisis.
Arsenal, languishing in 10th place, have made their worst start to a Premier League season in Wenger’s 16-year reign and the sense that their club is in decline has prompted a furious response from Gunners fans.
Some supporters staged a protest march before the Swansea match to underline their frustration at the Arsenal board’s failure to back Wenger in the transfer market, while many more unleashed a torrent of abuse at the Frenchman and his players after the final whistle.
In the circumstances, Arsenal could do with a win in Athens which, combined with a draw or defeat for Schalke at Montpellier, would allow Wenger’s men, who have already qualified for knockout stages, to snatch top spot and secure a potentially easier draw in the last 16.
But to achieve that goal the Gunners will need a stronger mental approach after crumbling too easily under pressure in recent weeks.
“At home, we look like we play a little bit with the handbrake. It is not fluent, there might be a psychological component in there as well,” Wenger said.
“There was no movement or speed in our passing and we looked laboured, not sharp.
“We had a lot of possession, but they created more chances than we did. We have to find a solution to this because we turn teams around without hurting them.”
While Wenger would love to finish top of the group, he acknowledges that Schalke are likely to win their tie against a Montpellier side already eliminated from the tournament and, with that in mind, he may not send out a full-strength team against Olympiakos.
“There are many players who need a rest, because they are on the verge of getting injured and some played with knocks,” Wenger said.
“But we hope that we get a good performance at Olympiakos because it is important for us.”
To make matters worse, Arsenal will travel to Greece with heavy hearts after Gunners chairman Peter Hill-Wood suffered a heart attack on Sunday following a bout of pneumonia.
Hill-Wood is recovering in hospital, but concerns over his health put Arsenal’s struggles into perspective and Gervinho, the club’s Ivorian striker, claims winning the group is not that important.
“Whether you finish first or second, there will always be some big teams in the next round,” he said.
“If a team has qualified for the last 16, it’s because there is a lot quality in it, so the further you go in the competition, the tougher it gets.
“Our objective is to finish top of the group, but if we finish second, it won’t be the end of the world either.
“Look at Real Madrid, they are sure to finish second, so if you win your group, you could still face them in the last 16.
“The most important thing is to be in great form before playing in the knockout stages.”
Arsenal have faced Olympiakos twice in the previous three seasons, losing each of their ties in Athens.
But the Greeks have little to play for as they can’t qualify for the last 16 and are already guaranteed to go into the Europa League as the third-placed team in the group.