I highly doubt any Gooner in the world was happy when the Champions League draw ended. We got the strongest group of all eight and it will be a real mission to qualify from it with one or two games to spare. Our opponents are Olympique Marseille, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund. None of the aforementioned clubs are reigning champions in their own country, but that doesn’t make our task easier. A hard-fought victory in France is a great step in the direction of a 14th consecutive progression from the Champions League Group Stage.
First of all, let’s take a look at Premiership fixtures that will take place before and after Champions’ League matches.
OLYMPIQUE MARSEILLE – ARSENAL (1:2, 18th September)
We won against Sunderland away and our next match in the Premiership is against Stoke at home. Both teams revolve around the physical approach to football, but both are beatable as our game at the Stadium of Light proved. Our match at the Velodrome wasn’t easy with some sloppy defending almost being punished by the hosts. It seems we have gained momentum and Mark Hughes’ Stoke should join Fenerbahče, Fulham, Spuds, Sunderland and Olympique Marseille on the list of teams we have beaten during our winning streak.
ARSENAL – NAPOLI (1st October)
This one is sandwiched between two away games. First, we’ll play Swansea away and than we’ll have to pay a visit to West Brom. Again, we won both fixtures last season but none of those victories came easily. Swansea with Bony and Michu, as well as West Brom with Sessegnon might create a lot of problems for us since the matches against Napoli might turn out to be crucial fixtures in the group, especially after Napoli won their home match against Borussia Dortmund.
ARSENAL – BORUSSIA DORTMUND (22nd October)
To call a home game against Norwich an easy fixture would be a negligence to our recent history. If we do well in match against Napoli and take all three points, our match against Borussia Dortmund, arguably one of the best European teams, shouldn’t bring too much pressure on our players as much as on our German opponents, who are already three points behind us. After the Champions League game, we’ll play against Marouane Chamakh’s Crystal Palace away.
BORUSSIA DORTMUND – ARSENAL (6th November)
Now, the reverse fixture will come in the middle of the “Week of hell” – between Liverpool at the Emirates and Manchester United at Old Trafford. The European vice-champions were ruthless at home in the Champions’ League 2012-13 – they won all six matches at home. Hopefully we will have enough points by this stage (7 or 9) in order to focus more on the two derbies in Premiership.
ARSENAL – OLYMPIQUE MARSEILLE (26th November)
A home game against Southampton and a visit to Cardiff City should not represent unbeatable opponents even if we will need all three points against Olympique Marseille to secure progress to First Knockout Stage. By this date we should have most of our injured players back in action.
NAPOLI – ARSENAL (11th December)
If there is a match that I don’t want to be the one that will decide our European destiny, it’s the one in Naples on the last match of the Group Stage and there are more than just one reason for that. First of all, Napoli have done excellent against English clubs in Champions League in front of their fanatical supporters – both Manchester City and Chelsea lost at the San Paolo Stadium. If this match turns out to be the deciding one, Napoli fans will make an atmosphere similar to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Furthermore, this game will come after tough home game against Everton and before our trip to Etihad where we will face Manchester City. Finally, I don’t want to bite remains of my nails anymore and that’s what will happen if we don’t secure First Knockout Stage before this match.
One could argue that we have had really decent memories from the last encounters against Olympique Marseille and Borussia Dortmund. We were drawn together in 2011-12 and we topped our group thanks to 8 points we collected in matches against those two sides. Our trip to Marseille was a victorious one but let’s not forget that whilst same thing had happened in 2011-12, the French side managed to grab a point at the Emirates in the reverse fixture in a goal-less draw (mostly due to the fact Van Persie was left on the bench for bigger part of the match).
Borussia Dortmund had more of the game at Westfallen but Van Persie’s goal gave us advantage. Ivan Perišić replied with an excellent strike three minutes to the end. In the reverse fixture, the German side had the initiative but the Gunners – more specifically, Van Persie – scored more goals. Van Persie scored a brace, but it was Alex Song’s brilliant dribbling before Van Persie scored his second that had been the best moment of the game. The visitors scored a consolation goal but all three points remained in London and the Germans ended on the bottom of the group.
This time, it will be very difficult to stay undefeated against the Germans. Jürgen Klopp’s side has been one of the best in Europe and players like Gündogan, Reus and Lewandowski – all signed for combined fee of 23 million pounds! – established themselves as top-class players. The Gabonese striker Aubameyang is one of the fastest players in the world and has been rather impressive since joining Borussia from Saint-Etienne this summer. The Germans play fast and direct football that doesn’t give a bloody damn who are their opponents. Basically, they attack and defend as unit. They didn’t give their best performance against Napoli and can’t allow themselves to slip against Marseille at home.
Marseille have suffered a lot since PSG and Monaco got themselves sugar-daddies. It has been obvious that they won’t be able to compete with them – on the pitch or in the market – so they can hope their promising youngsters will turn out to be superstars. Florient Thauvin, one of the most exciting French prospects that caught Wenger’s eye as well, signed for Marseille this summer. The Ayew brothers have been around for a long time. Winger Payet – signed from Lille – might be another piece of great business for Marseille. They shouldn’t be any danger to our ambitions, but if we drop points against them at Emirates, we will probably have to work our bottoms off in Naples in order to make things up.
Finally, Napoli are side that lost their best player Edinson Cavani this summer but used that money in a similar fashion Spuds did in England. Napoli signed “our” Higuain from Real Madrid as well as Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon. Pepe Reina, another long-term Arsenal target, joined them on loan. Rafa Benitez is a cup-expert and only manager in the group that has won Champions’ League before. With players like Maggio and Hamšik in their ranks and given that they have already collected three points against Borussia Dortmund, Napoli might be our toughest challenge for one of two places in the Knockout Stage. With fanatical supporters on their side, it will be a real challenge to pick any point at San Paolo Stadium.
Still, we should advance to next stage, just like we have done 13 years in a row!