Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is considering bringing defender Per Mertesacker back from his post-World Cup layoff early as injury cover for Tuesday’s Champions League first leg playoff against Besiktas.
Mertesacker and his Germany teammates Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski were given the extended break by Wenger after the World Cup triumph in Brazil last month with the trio scheduled to miss the first few weeks of the campaign.
However, defenders Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs suffered knocks in Saturday’s last-gasp 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in their English Premier League opener meaning Mertesacker, who last week announced his international retirement, could be drafted in to play in Turkey.
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“We will assess Koscielny on Monday,” Wenger was quoted as saying by British media on Monday. “If he’s fit and capable to play, we play him. It was our plan to bring the Germans back in contention for Everton (on Saturday). But in case of emergency I will take Mertesacker.
“Ideally he would need one more week preparation, but he’s willing to play, no problem. We are a bit short.”
Frenchman Koscielny drew the Gunners level on the stroke of halftime on Saturday after Brede Hangeland’s glancing header gave Palace the lead at the Emirates Stadium. The centreback played the full 90 minutes but suffered from pain in his foot, while Gibbs lasted little over an hour before succumbing to a hamstring injury.
Arsenal are aiming to reach the Champions League group stage for the 17th consecutive season.
After an impressive 3-0 Community Shield win over champions Manchester City and the victory over Palace, courtesy of Aaron Ramsey’s late winner, Wenger was confident of progressing past the Turkish side. “We are desperate to do it because we want to play in the Champions League and we know how big these games are,” Wenger added. “We had to give a lot, hopefully we will recover and be ready for Tuesday night. We are desperate to go through, no matter what it costs we want to go through. We have always a difficult draw, we had Fenerbahce last year, this time we have Besiktas. It’s difficult.”
Napoli’s first game of the season could also be one of their most difficult and important as they host Spain’s Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of their Champions League playoff tie on Tuesday.
Benitez under scanner
Napoli’s participation last season brought them 38.6 million euros, including 4 million in the so-called performance bonuses and 26 million euros their share of the television market pool. Failure to beat Athletic, Europa League runners-up in 2012, could put immediate pressure on Napoli coach Rafael Benitez, whose debut season last season was regarded as only satisfactory.
A third place Serie A finish and the Coppa Italia title were the bare minimum expected from the Spaniard at Italy’s biggest-spending club who performed only in fits and starts last term, repeatedly dropping precious Serie A points against lower-placed opposition.
“Those two matches can shape a season because it’s true that the Champions League provides a different dimension to the club, the city and to us players,” said Napoli forward Marek Hamsik.“Among the five possible opponents, with Athletic we have been landed with the most difficult,” warned Benitez. “They’re a team who play good football and, at home, the 50,000 at San Mames give them a big push. It will be a very good, and very intense game.”
Slovan Bratislava host Belarus champions BATE Borisov on Wednesday as they attempt to emulate MSK Zilina, MFK Kosice and Petrzalke by representing Slovakia in the group stage. Ludogorets Razgrad begin their attempt to become only the second Bulgarian side to qualify when they visit former European champions Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday.
Malmo visit Austrian champions Salzburg on Tuesday, hoping to become the first Swedish team to qualify for 14 years.
Witsel up against old club
Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel will return to his old club with Zenit St Petersburg when the Russians, led by Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas, visit Standard Liege on Wednesday. Ambitious Zenit, whose new signings included Argentina World Cup defender Ezequiel Garay, have made a flying start to the Russian Premier League, winning their first four games and beating Torpedo Moscow 8-1 in the process.