Beşiktaş, aka the Black Eagles, was dealt a tough draw in the UEFA Champions League playoff round as it was pitted against English Premiership powerhouse Arsenal. The first leg is in İstanbul on Tuesday and the return leg will be at Emirates Stadium eight days later.
But the Black Eagles and anyone associated with the illustrious İstanbul club are relying on newly signed French-born Senegal striker Demba Ba -- rephrased by Turkish fans as “Dem Baba” (Papa Dem) -- to wave his magic wand again and bring the English Gunners down to earth. Ba was on the verge of joining Arsenal on loan at the transfer deadline last season, but the deal fell through. And as fate would have it, the 29-year-old will be instrumental in plotting the Gunners’ downfall in the Champions League playoff.
Ba hit a hat-trick in Beşiktaş’s 3-1 second-leg victory over Feyenoord in the previous round, which gave the Black Eagles a 5-2 aggregate victory.
This was Ba’s debut with Beşiktaş, and he scored three goals even though he came in as a substitute for Dutch-born Turkey international midfielder Oğuzhan Özyakup in the 50th minute.
For the record: The 21-year-old Oğuzhan is a former youth product of Arsenal and he might be playing for the very first time against the team that brought him fame.
The Beşiktaş faithful expect something similar or even more from Ba against the Gunners, regardless of the obvious gulf between the two teams. The Black Eagles are 69th in the UEFA rankings and the Gunners 10th.
Beşiktaş has never previously played against Arsenal in any European competition. That gives added importance to the upcoming match because Ba has faced the Gunners many times while at West Ham United (2011), Newcastle United (2011-13) and Chelsea (2013-14), from whence he joined Beşiktaş. “Let everyone be relaxed,” Ba reportedly told his teammates after the playoff round draw was made. “Arsenal, of course, is a big team. However, its greatness should not be over-exaggerated. If we play sensibly and put on a good fight, there is no reason why we cannot progress. And we have the ability to make this happen,” he further said.
“One tree does not a forest make,” say the Africans, who are well versed in forests and all their inhabitants. Consequently, Ba will not be alone. He will be assisted up front by master passer Oğuzhan, playmaker Gökhan Töre and Austrian-born left-winger Kerim Frei Konyunlu -- formerly of Fulham.
Coach Bilic also knows Arsenal well
Beşiktaş Croatian coach Slaven Bilic, coincidentally, is a former West Ham defender (1996-97) and he too must have been up against Arsenal several times during his short stay with the Hammers in the Premiership.
Like Ba, Bilic has great respect for the Gunners but is not scared of them one bit. “Arsenal is one of the best teams in Europe. We took one of the most difficult draws,” he said after the Champions League pairings were made.
“This is without a doubt a match where Arsenal is the favorite. We have great respect for Arsenal. We have hope and [a] plan. We will try to implement this plan,” he noted. Beşiktaş beat Chelsea 1-0 in their recent 45-minute friendly in İstanbul. Chelsea by all accounts is superior to Arsenal, and so Bilic, maybe thinking syllogistically, believes that his Black Eagles can also overcome Arsene Wenger’s Gunners.
“We will be brave and we will do our best to eliminate them,” he stated after the draw. “The football we played against Chelsea gave a signal to us about this match. If we can deal with Chelsea, we can cope with Arsenal,” he added.