Our next and final match of the CL group stage is against Olympiacos. The Greek side gave us a hard time in the first match at the Emirates and, despite the fact we won 3-1, it wasn’t an easy match at all. We had a horrible first half riddled with mistakes but we had that lethal weapon of ours Gervinho who scored our first goal of the match from outside the box. After a number of mistakes from our defenders (especially Vermaelen), the visitors equalized before the half time. In the second half we found a breakthrough again thanks to Podolski. Then the match turned into a one-way-street. In the last minutes of the match Aaron Ramsey scared every celebrity in the world by scoring after Giroud’s flick.
However, there are certain pointers that suggest tomorrows match could turn out to be same as the one we lost last season. Last year we also traveled to Greece to play our last group match with no worries regarding the Knockout Stage given that we had secured top spot. This time, we have secured second place but we could still play for the top spot…but it seems we won’t. Wenger has decided to rest Cazorla, Arteta, Giroud, Wilshere, Walcott, Podolski and Mertesacker. Despite the fact we could theoretically fight for the top spot in the group, I think Wenger has made the right call. The aforementioned players need rest, especially Cazorla and Arteta who have been overplayed so far, Giroud has participated in every match so far, Mertesacker is needed for the next fixtures in the Premiership given that Koscielny is injured while Wilshere, Walcott and Podolski all have had problems with injuries and illness.
A victory in Athens could mean nothing to us if Schalke win in France against Montpellier which is very a likely outcome given that the French side failed to collect more than just one point in over the previous five matches. Players like Arshavin, Chamakh and Squillaci will get some playing minutes which could be a good thing if there are any clubs out there willing to sign them while tomorrows match could be useful for Tomas Rosicky to regain some match fitness. Young players like Chuba Akpom will also gain vital experience from playing in the illustrious Champions’ League.
The fixture will be a little bit different than last season. We came to Greece with a similar squad like the one Wenger have picked for tomorrows match because that match had no importance for us. On the other side, Olympiacos had a decent chance to progress if Olympique Marseille failed to win in Dortmund against Borussia. The Greeks were winning the match against us 3-1 when they received heartbreaking news from Germany – Marseille had managed to score two in the space of just five minutes to make it 3-2 and secured qualification for Knockout Stage which had meant the Greeks had to settle with the Europa League. This year our hosts are cemented in 3rd spot without any chance and regardless the outcome tomorrow, they will head into the Europa League.
It would be nice to end the group stage with a victory because the level of confidence needs to be improved for senior players like Vermaelen, Sczszesny, Ramsey, Rosicky, Coquelin, Gervinho or Oxlade-Chamberlain, while participation in a victory would do wonders for confidence of youngsters like Akpom, Hajrović or Meade. Players like Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain – youngsters that are already considered as senior players – will have to step up given that their recent performances have been average at best and they are rising suspicions about their potential to become leaders of Arsenal like they are expected.
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Last season we ended first in our group but that didn’t help us in the draw for the Knockout Stage. We played against arguably the best second-placed squad in the Champions’ League AC Milan and were eliminated because of that heavy 4-0 defeat in the first match. This season ending first or second in the group doesn’t matter as much. First-placed teams that we could play against if we end second as expected are Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Bayern, Shakhtar or Juventus, Malaga and Porto or Paris Saint-Germain. Second-placed teams that we could play if we somehow end up first are Real Madrid, Benfica or Celtic, Valencia, Juventus or Shakhtar, Galatasaray or Cluj, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain or Porto. Granted, it would be much easier to play against Galatasaray than against Bayern but the difference between Barcelona and Real Madrid or Porto and PSG is very small.
Victory in Athens would also be nice recovery present to Peter Hill-Wood as well so there is another genuine reason to hope players will give their best tomorrow and make us proud.