Welcome to Hell.
Arsène Wenger got there at around ten to five on Saturday, after the disastrous season-opening home loss to Aston Villa but it is safe to say that a visit to Istanbul, where Arsenal's Champions League fate stands to be decided against Fenerbahce, does not exactly seem soothing.
There was a time, in the uncomfortably recent past, when footballing trips to this city were synonymous with fear and hatred. No longer. But come match time the stadiums here retain the capacity to intimidate, none more so than Fenerbahce's Sukru Saracoglu, which sounds like something from an Indiana Jones movie and will be a study in sustained intensity during the play-off first leg on Wednesday night.
Arsenal have been here before, in these do-or-die shoot-outs. The tie against Fenerbahce represents their sixth play-off appearance in the past eight seasons and they have previously managed to get the jobs done to maintain their record of reaching the group phase of Europe's elite competition. Not since 1997 have they failed to make it.
Yet it feels more fraught than ever this time, which is quite a statement given the stress of 2011, when the play-off draw pitted them against the menace of Udinese and they flirted with disaster in the second leg, on a claustrophobic night in Italy, before getting through. They collapsed in their next game, losing 8-2 at Manchester United.
Arsenal do not seem to trade in mere crisis these days but degrees of it and, at present, this one looks as bad as can be. Wenger was spiky and agitated at his press conference as his methods were cross-examined yet again and the fact that the club's world appears to be on the brink of caving in, after only one game, illustrates the fragility of a situation that has bubbled for years.
The fans are in revolt over the lack of new signings this summer, with Arsenal having left their increased financial firepower untouched. Even the players have been desperate to see morale-boosting additions; so far, only the France youth striker Yaya Sanogo has joined. Supporters' groups have questioned whether Wenger should be offered a new contract after his expires at the end of the season and when the worst-case scenarios over the next two weeks are considered – namely a Champions League exit and no exciting signings – it is possible to glimpse the end of the manager's era.
Wenger has spoken of "dangerous negativity", which could drag the team down but it feels as though it is everywhere. "Our season will depend on how we respond to the Villa defeat," Wenger said. There was no argument, at least, with that line.
Only the weekend before last, Wenger had been pleased with the friendly win over Manchester City in Helsinki and there had been the basis for optimism during the pre-season. There was momentum from the excellent form at the end of last season; the lack of a damaging summer departure; the fantastic spirit; a fit Jack Wilshere; the scope for players to improve and the sense that this is a team that can beat anybody on their day. The players warmed to the arguments. If only Wenger could add a couple of world-class signings ...
The failure to date, however, has sapped everybody and created the climate for the frenzied post-Villa outpouring, which has shadowed the squad to Istanbul. Wenger was put on the spot, as he always is, about incoming business – he can barely move these days without somebody telling him to spend some money – but he had nothing to report, at least not yet. "A lot will happen in the next 10 days," he said.
The fear is that it could be a mad trolley dash, of the sort that saw players arrive in the final days of the summer window two years ago – the hits being Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta; the misses being André Santos and Park Chu-young.
Wenger's £10m bid for Newcastle United's Yohan Cabaye on Monday raised eyebrows, largely because Wenger is well-stocked with ball-playing central midfielders while there is interest retained elsewhere, chiefly in the Swansea City players Ashley Williams and Michu, as well as Paul Pogba of Juventus and Stoke City's Asmir Begovic.
Are any of them world-class, players to significantly improve Wenger's starting XI? Arsenal continue to hold out hope that either Luis Suárez or Wayne Rooney may be prised from Liverpool or Manchester United respectively, however slim that might appear. It has been a painstaking and painful process.
The focus, though, has turned inwards, with Wenger noting that no amount of new signings could now influence the first leg against Fenerbahce.
The runners-up in last season's Turkish league lost at newly promoted Konyaspor in their domestic opener on Saturday – they led 2-0 only to slip 3-2 – but they talked the talk about how they might exploit Arsenal's vulnerability. The manager, Ersun Yanal, promised a "different identity" to Konyaspor and, also, a lead to take to London.
"We want to play our game and impose ourselves very quickly," said Arsenal's Mertesacker, who has played with Germany in Istanbul. "They are very passionate fans and we need to go through that, keep them as quiet as possible, especially in the first 20 minutes. We want to show our fans that we are ready for the Champions League this season."
Arsenal gave everything last season to make it this far. They dare not throw it away, for so many reasons.
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image: © Matt and Kim Rudge