Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Can Arsenal survive the group of death?

When Marseille were drawn into Arsenal’s group from pot two in the Champions League group stage draw, Arsenal fans would have been feeling relieved having avoided some of the big hitters in that pot. However that optimism drained as the two worst possible teams were taken from pots three and four and placed alongside Arsenal in group F.
There are two ways to look at Arsenal being in a group with Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. The obvious way to view it is that is it a difficult group and Arsenal’s chances of qualifying for the knockout rounds would have been better in a different group. The other way is to see it as an opportunity to lay a marker down for the rest of the competition. There doesn’t look like there’ll be any easy games in this group, so the players have to view it as a chance to prove themselves against some excellent European sides and show they deserve to be in Europe’s top competition.
Arsenal fought really hard to be in the Champions League last season, and the challenge of playing these teams is the reason why they did it. The Arsenal team should relish that challenge, not fear it.
Some of the fans’ initial fears about the draw have already been eased. The squad is still thin, especially considering the fact that youngsters Isaac Hayden and Chuba Akpom will be on the Arsenal bench against Marseille, but it does now Mesut Ozil. Arsenal might have things to fear about the opposition, but the opposition have plenty to fear about Arsenal.
So what of Arsenal’s opponents? Marseille finished 2nd in Ligue 1 last season and, probably fortunately for them, have lost Joey Barton back to QPR this summer. Arsenal faced them in the Champions League two years ago, winning 1-0 in the Stade Velodrome and drawing 0-0 at the Emirates. Mathieu Valbuena will have to be closely monitored, but otherwise Arsenal should be looking to claim all six points from matches with the French side. Considering how tight the group should be, Arsenal can’t hold back away from home in the south of France.
Napoli will be Arsenal’s second opponents in the group, and they’re a team that Arsenal met in pre-season. The Gunners went 2-0 down in the Emirates Cup but came back to draw 2-2. Both teams have improved from then, and the Arsenal doomsayers will be hoping for Gonzalo Higuain to shoot the Gunners down. Napoli have started Serie A well, but they still lack some Champions League pedigree.
The same can’t be said of the final team in group F. Borussia Dortmund conceded a late goal in last year’s final after an impressive run to Wembley. Although they finished 2nd in the Bundesliga, Dortmund weren’t close to winners Bayern Munich, showing they’re still searching for consistency across the competitions they play in. Ominously, they’ve started the season well and, apart from Mario Gotze, have kept hold of the majority of their best players. Jurgen Klopp has been touted by some as an eventual successor to Arsene Wenger, and he’s already been as close to winning the Champions League as Wenger ever has been.
After a few years of just making it out the group stage and not much further, some were questioning Arsenal’s position in the group of top seeds when the draw was made, claiming they didn’t deserve a favourable draw. As it turned out, the Gunners will face their toughest group for many a season. For all of those who are writing Arsenal off in this group, they should be reminded that Arsenal’s last match in the Champions League was a 2-0 win in the Allianz Arena against eventual winners Bayern Munich. Since that game in February, Arsenal have won every match away from home and their only defeat was the crazy game with Aston Villa. This team know that they can go to the toughest places in Europe and win.
Often, Champions League group games can be slightly boring, such is the gulf in quality between some of the teams. That won’t be the case in group F. For the neutral, all the matches should be good to watch. Yes, as much as it would have been annoying or boring to face someone like Olympiacos again, it would have been easier for Arsenal. However, if you want to be in Europe’s top competition, you have to expect to play some of the best in Europe. They might be doing so earlier than hoped, but if Arsenal can survive the group of death, they can head to the knockout rounds knowing that they’ve seen off top quality teams.