Last night the Group Stage of the Champions’ League came to an end. Sixteen teams have reached the Knockout Stage of the Champions’ League, eight will continue their European adventure in the less prestigious Europa League while another eight clubs will have to worry only about domestic competitions from now on (City and Chelsea).
We are one of these sixteen teams that will continue in the Champions’ League in spring (unless the Mayans were right, of course), and as we are yet to find out who our next opponents will be in the knockout stages, allArsenal.com are previewing the six sides that we could face – Paris Saint-Germain, Malaga, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Bayern Muenchen, Juventus. The aforementioned teams won their respective groups as well as FAnchester United and Schalke 04, but due to UEFA rules we cannot face another English side, neither the side that won our group.
What should we expect from the draw? Before any analysis, I should say that, with our current squad and, more important, form we won’t be able to challenge any of aforementioned teams. We need reinforcements in January in order to compete and it is a good thing that we will know our opponent before the January transfer window opens.
One of the most expensive teams in the world overcame Porto in the fight for the top spot in their pretty straight-forward group during the last half of the group stage. Their rich owners from Qatar have already invested hundreds of millions of Euros in PSG, one of the youngest European teams among the strongest (they were founded in 1970), and they are not showing any intention to stop despite taxes imposed by French authorities. However, despite being so rich that they apparently considering to spend half a billion euros in order to lure both Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo to Paris,and they did not even enter the Champions’ League as champions because little Montpellier led by our Olivier Giroud spoiled their plans last season, winning Ligue 1.
That infuriated PSG’s owners so they spent more than all of the other French clubs combined to bring in Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimović. One of the best central defenders and one of the best strikers in the world have already taken leading roles in PSG – Thiago Silva has been their captain for a while despite being with the club for only a few months, while Ibrahimović has scored or created almost every goal PSG has scored so far. Both of them featured in the matches between Arsenal and AC Milan last season with Ibrahimović man of the match in first leg when the Italian side won 4-0. Given that their director of football is Leonardo, the former player of AC Milan and coach of Internazionale, their squad was built around players that were signed from Italian clubs while their coach is Italian as well – Carlo Ancelotti. They are still far from being a consistent big team and their good results in France and the Champions’ League were mostly the result of individual quality, especially of the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović. The Swedish striker of Bosnian origin is the alfa and omega of PSG’s attack despite the fact they have the former Napoli striker Ezequiel Lavezzi and French international Jeremy Menez to help him. PSG’s goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu had to save them in more than a few occasions this season (he made a lot of saves in Kyiv where they won against Dynamo 2-0). If the draw put our and PSG’s balls together, our players could see a familiar face – the Brazilian central defender Alex that was on the score-sheet on a couple of occasions against Arsenal (both for PSV and Chelsea) and that was targeted by Wenger before he signed Per Mertesacker.
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They won five matches in their group with a loss at Dragao being their only defeat. That defeat suggests they can be beaten despite fantastic players like Ibrahimović and Silva in their squad. Given that Carlo Ancelotti (the man that won the Champions’ League twice with AC Milan but managed to the lose advantage in more than a few situations) is on their bench, they could be more desirable opponent than any of the German clubs. Still, I would like to avoid them because of Ibrahimović who could turn out to be too much for our defense again.
Another club that has reached the heights of the Champions’ League thanks to oil-money poured all over them but first among the nouveau riche clubs that have felt the repercussions from when rich owners decide to give up on their expensive toy. Their financial problems were the reason they accepted our offer for Santi Cazorla but it seems that didn’t affect too much judging by their performances. They had topped a group that consisted of an AC Milan side in decline, Zenit reinforced with Hulk and Witsel and Anderlecht with the use of their two impressive stars – the attacking midfielder Isco, that has been on our radar for a while, and Eliseu. They didn’t enjoy too much possession in their matches but they had produced a direct approach to overcome likes of Milan, Zenit and Anderlecht.
However, there are a couple of reasons why they should be the least of our worries. First of all, their financial problems could make them sell even more stars in January. Granted, there is a huge possibility that they will be reluctant to sell Isco, Monreal et al, as long as they can do something in the Champions’ League, a competition that is not just illustrious but also lucrative as well. Second of all this is a new experience for them, their first knockout stage, and they have proven that Roberto Mancini’s ridiculous claims of his players lack Champions’ League experience is a load of rubbish. Thirdly, Santi Cazorla and the fact we have him now and they don’t. If Santi manages to restore his shape prior to spring, we can beat even stronger opponents than Malaga. Of course, with our current state, Malaga would be the favourites to win on aggreggate against us.
There weren’t many pundits that had predicted Borussia Dortmund would advance from the Group D(eath), mind winning it. They had to face Real Madrid, Manchester Shitty and Ajax but they didn’t just manage to win this group, they also managed to do it without losing a single match. Their final tally of 14 points would be even more fantastic if they didn’t concede two late equalizers in their away matches against Shitty (Balotelli scored a late penalty in the match Borussia ought had won by at least a three goal margin) and Real Madrid (Oezil’s free-kick went in because of poor goalkeeping from Weidenfeller). Despite having the least possession of the ball during their matches, they manage to create plenty of chances and their direct, attractive and yet efficient football has made not only Borussia Dortmund one of the favourites to win the Champions’ League but also their coach Juergen Klopp as one of the most desirable managers in the world. Arsenal fans who consider replacements for Wenger usually mention Klopp’s name after Guardiola’s. If Borussia Dortmund keep playing like they did in their group stage, Klopp could overtake that title from Pep. It would be great to see Arsenal – when we play in our yellow kit – attack their richer and noisier rivals United or Chelsea like unstoppable angry bees just like Borussia Dortmund when their stings find their opponents’ net.
Although they managed to win two consecutive titles in Germany with last season’s double rounded with the impressive 5-2 thrashing of Bayern Muenchen in the Cup Final, it seems they will face a tough challenge for a repeat. Bayern is already 11 points clear and their head-to-head has shown Bayern is currently a little bit stronger than Borussia. It could be that the Champions’ League is the only real challenge that they have and that could be a swan song for the great team built around the likes of defensive towers Subotić and Hummels that help their attack on regular basis, Polish trio Piszczek, Blaczszykowsky and Lewandowski (the latter one is not only the easiest to pronounce but also the one that is chased by a host of Premier League clubs with Arsenal among them), Turkish talents (yesterday Sahin, today Guendogan) and future leaders of the German national team Goetze and Reus with their arguably weakest spot being Roman Weidenfeller (sometimes they call him Weidenfehler – “Fehler” means “a mistake” or “an error”).
Klopp is used to loosing his important players – after their first title Borussia Dortmund sold Lucas Barrios, one of the best strikers, and Nuri Sahin, the best player in the Bundesliga – but he managed to overcome the losses and make his squad even stronger. This summer they lost Shinji Kagawa to FAnchester United (I was hoping that we would sign him) and tried to replace him with Marco Reus. So far, that replacement has helped them perform better in the Champions’ League than in the Bundesliga. No matter what happens, I would like Arsenal to face Borussia Dortmund in May 2013, in the Champions’ League final. Last season we managed to take a 1-1 draw in Dortmund and win the home match 2-1 but all three goals for us were scored by Verrader and it was Alex Song that made that fantastic assist for the decisive goal in our victory.
Our greatest enemy when it comes to the Champions’ League. In 2006 we lost the Champions’ League final despite going a goal up, in 2010 and 2011 our European campaigns ended when we faced the Spanish outfit with another ugly experience from the 1999-2000 when we ended 3rd in our Group behind them and Fiorentina, and it’s no coincidence that Arsene Wenger named Barcelona as the crucial reason why Arsenal needed to advance to the Knockout Stage in top spot. They seem unplayable in Primera with a home draw against Real Madrid their only match they have failed to win so far. Last season they failed to win either the Champions’ League or Primera but this season they are much stronger given that they signed Alex Song from us, bought academy graduate Jordi Alba back and David Villa has returned from injury after almost six months sidelined due to injury. Their European campaign wasn’t very impressive – Spartak Moscow had nearly snatched a point or all three of them, they had beaten Celtic only with an injury time goal of Alba and the Scottish side then won the reverse fixture against the Catalan side despite having less then 20 percent of ball possession.
With all due respect to pundits that claim Barcelona win matches mostly because they have referees on their side, it should be said that they have a lot of talented world-class players in their attacking lines. Messi is one of the best players of all time already, Xavi is one of the best playmakers in the last decade and Iniesta is one of the best players as well but also one of the unluckiest given that pundits and experts usually point their fingers at Messi or Xavi. Villa, Fabregas, Dani Alves…all talented attacking players and it’s no wonder Barcelona score a lot of goals. They also don’t mind dirty tricks – Sergio Busquets is one of the best in business when it comes diving and manipulating the referee. They are so good that they can afford having Victor Valdes in their goal.
I wouldn’t like to face them at all. Their qualities – on the pitch as well as the ones off – would prevail and it would effect our nerves again. However, it should be said that they are afraid of Walcott. They usually pointed his name out in 2011.
If Borussia Dortmund is one of the worst possible options, what should we say about the team that is 11 points ahead in the Bundesliga and outplayed them last weekend? Runner-up from last season, Bayern Muenchen seem to be one of the most in-form sides in Europe. Their European campaign could have been more impressive (they lost to BATE Borisov and drew with Valencia in their away matches) but they seem like a team that can win the Champions’ League this time round. Their attacking talent is enormous with duo called Robbery on their wings, one of the best players in the WC 2010 Thomas Mueller and two Marios – Mandžukić and Gomez – sharing their minutes with their veteran striker Claudio Pizarro. They also added more steel to their midfield by splashing 40 million euros for the services of Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao.
I wouldn’t like to play them because Bayern have been a tough opponent for us even in times when we had much more quality. There would be chance for us – especially because Holger Badstuber will be out for a long time and their defense can be fragile – but it is more likely that they would give us a serious beating.
This is a tricky one. Juventus had to face reigning champions the Chavs and the strong Ukranian side Shakhtar as serious competition. They took 4 points in each head-to-head in their group which says a lot. Their defense and midfield is arguably one of the best in Europe. Veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is between the sticks, Giorgio Chiellini is the main mean man in the defense and fantastic playmaker Andrea Pirlo is the one pulling all the strings in the midfield. They are helped by excellent players like Vidal, Marchisio, Bonucci, Lichtsteiner… This team is Juventus’ version of The Invincibles – they won Serie A last season without losing a single match while their streak of being unbeaten ended in the 50th match against one of their fiercest rivals (Internazionale). However, they don’t have a world-class striker and that is a problem for them sometimes (Bendtner’s not doing the business). Despite being unbeaten they nearly lost the battle for the title last season because of draws. Vučinić, a long-term target for Wenger, Quagliarrella and Giovinco are all decent players but they are not top-drawer finishers like Cavani, Falcao or Huntelaar.
Although most of Arsenal fans hate Barca the most, Juventus could be held as our biggest menace in Europe. In 1998-99 Wenger wanted to sign Henry but he left for Juventus in order to replace injured Alessandro Del Piero. If we had Henry instead of Kaba Diawara on that night in Leeds, there would be no treble for FAnchester United. In 2002 they screwed us up by losing to Bayer Leverkusen in the penultimate match of the Second Group Stage of the Champions’ League and then by defeating us with their second-string in the match that didn’t mean anything for them. In 2005, they signed our skipper Patrick Vieira, our last captain that lifted silverware. Giorgio Chiellini was the player that injured Verrader in the international friendly match between Holland and Italy which caused the Dutchman to miss five months of the season in which we were serious contenders. Arturo Vidal and Mirko Vučinić were both connected with Arsenal before signing for Juventus.
They have plenty of steel but their finishing is not anything to fear. I consider them as the dark horse of the Champions’ League because they find it difficult to win matches but their opponents find it almost impossible to make Juventus lose. The same record of points against the worst side in the Champions’ League this season Nordsjaelland and against the Chavs proves that. I wouldn’t like to face them due to the fact every solid squad produces problems to us.
The draw for the Knockout Stage will take place on 20th December.