After giving away the comfortable situation we were in before the home defeat against Schalke, we’ll need to work hard in our upcoming fixtures in order to qualify for the Champions League First Knockout Stage.
If we take a look on the current table, we won’t see any problems at all:
1. Schalke 3 2 1 0 7
2. Arsenal 3 2 0 1 6
3. Olympiacos 3 1 0 2 3
4. Montpellier 3 0 1 2 1
It is still too early to raise alarm bells given that we are still three points ahead of the 3rd-placed Olympiacos. However, we have to take in account that we have only have one more game at the Emirates with our away form in the Champions League not particularly promising. Meanwhile, the Greek side have two home matches at their volcano where they rarely lose points.
On Tuesday we are playing away to Schalke following the horrible 2-1 defeat against Manchester United. We saw what German side can do when they are given plenty of space – their attacking talent in likes of Farfan, Afellay and Huntelaar with support from their right full-back Uchida can cause problems to any team that doesn’t defend attacks from flanks well. Our left-back-issues are well-known and our every opponent tries to exploit it. There were some hints from Wenger that he wasn’t very happy with neither Vermaelen nor Santos in Saturday’s match which could mean Vermaelen will start as left-back with Koscielny taking his place in the heart of defense. That change would make Schalke attacks less dangerous and probably extend the life expectancy among Arsenal fans given that Santos is no longer in the starting eleven. Good thing is, Schalke could prove to be more dangerous in away matches than at their own soil. They have won both away matches so far but they failed to win against the under-performing Montpellier, the French side that is struggling to find decent form in Le Championnat and having snatched only a point so far at the Veltins Arena.
If we, by any chance, lose in Germany, we will be forced to fight for second spot in the home match against Montpellier. The French side indeed gave us hard time in first match we won 2:1. The reigning French champions will have a certain bit of history on their side. Before our first match against Montpellier it was often mentioned that we never lost a European away match against French side. It is certainly true as in the Wenger-era we have visited five different teams in Champions’ League – Lens, Lyon, Auxerre, Marseille and Montpellier. 1:1 against Lens, 1:0 victories against Lyon, Auxerre and Marseille while our most recent trip to France ended with 2:1 victory against Montpellier. However, it is rarely mentioned that we failed to win home matches in these previous occasions. We lost against Lens at Wembley 0:1, Lyon snatched a draw (1:1), Auxerre won 2:1 at Highbury while Marseille kept a clean sheet last season. So, history states that we make positive results against French teams in Champions League away matches, but in reverse fixtures that come later our results deteriorate. Let’s hope that we will break that tradition.
And, if we fail to do so, our last match will be away match against Olympiacos in what is likely to be a play-off for second spot. We lost twice in two previous visits to Athens so it would be wise to avoid making that match the decisive one. If we keep our three-point advantage ahead of the Greek side until last round, the late goal from Aaron Ramsey in the home match against the Greek side to make it 3-1 could prove vital for the final standings given that, if two teams end up with same number of points, the first three tie-breakers are based on their head-to-head. We had a lot of problems with Olympiacos at home and with their fanatic crowd, which are sure give them immense support, our task in Athens won’t be any easier.
But, first things first. We can beat Schalke if we avoid the mistakes made from the first encounter. Given that Walcott’s condition is not certain and Oxlade-Chamberlain is out, maybe Wenger could think about a surprise tactic in which Sagna and Jenkinson would both start on the right side, with the former being a winger. Sagna’s crossing would make Olivier Giroud more efficient but it is very unlikely to happen. Wenger would be reluctant to play both of his injury prone right-backs in the starting 11 given that Sagna recovered only recently from his second leg break and as a winger he would be faced with more hard tackling from Schalke defenders than if he is playing his natural right full-back role. That means Arshavin will start from the first minute, only it is questionable whether he will start as attacking midfielder with Cazorla on the right wing or he will keep his Spanish connection in central midfield with Arshavin on the right. The left side of the defense is very questionable – Vermaelen should start there, but he must play better than he has been in recent weeks. I would like to see us trying more from outside the box since we have Cazorla and Podolski, players that can score from long range. That would be a step forward in adjusting our playing philosophy to the players we have. Another step forward would be to score first tomorrow. We have played 15 matches in all competitions so far and on only five occasions we have scored the first goal of the match. On eight occasions the opponent has struck first, a trend that must obviously be broken. We must settle into the game from the very start and score in the opening 15 minutes. We have suffered from slow starts too often this season and it needs to be changed against Schalke. The German side will be the first team that we are facing for the second time this season, so we don’t need to spend half an hour trying to learn and adapt to their characteristics.
I’m too biased when it comes to predicting Arsenal matches and my prediction – 2:1 for Arsenal, with Arshavin scoring a winner in last minutes of the match with Giroud scoring first goal for us – should be observed with that in mind.