Group of death doesn't quite kill Arsenal

When the draw was made for the group stage of the Champions League, most Arsenal fans would have gladly taken 12 points from the six matches if offered them before a ball was kicked. In most other seasons, that would have comfortably been enough to see Arsenal into the knock-out stages with a game to spare and, in most cases, have them sit top of the group.
This was no ordinary group of death though. Marseille’s inability to win a point, the complete lack of draws and the slightly confusing UEFA permutations meant that the Gunners weren’t guaranteed a place in the last 16 before the final game in Naples. Having dispatched Napoli 2-0 in the earlier game at the Emirates, Arsenal should have been confident about going there and getting a result to see them top the group. For the majority of the game, whilst not necessarily dominating proceedings, Arsenal had control of the game and looked ready to see out the draw that would secure top spot.
However when Gonzalo Higuain reminded Arsenal why the club were interested in signing him this summer by opening the scoring, things got a bit nervy. Then Mikel Arteta got a second yellow card and Arsenal were down to ten men. Whilst the second yellow did look like it was a soft decision, it was definitely a foul from the Spaniard and having been cautioned it was always going to be a risk. It’s just frustrating that Arteta only committed two fouls in the game and got sent off, whilst Valon Behrami committed five for Napoli and didn’t receive a caution.
Switching to having two banks of four, Arsenal just about did enough to avoid the three goal defeat that would have knocked them out, with Napoli scoring a second goal with virtually the last kick of the game. It wasn’t pretty, but it was job done.
It was a strange performance from Arsenal considering that the talk before the game was that the players were just going to treat it like a normal match and go out there to win it, rather than just trying to contain Napoli knowing the hosts had to win big to go through. However despite those words I think the fact Arsenal didn’t have to win was in the minds of the players. They weren’t going to take undue risks going forward, or speed the match up, when they knew it wasn’t necessary to. It didn’t make the game a great spectacle, and whilst the score-line was still 0-0, you could claim Arsenal’s game plan worked.
Things did become a bit panicky at 1-0, and at that point most fans wished Arsenal had just gone at the game at full tilt from kick off and effectively put it beyond Napoli in the first half. However I think there was also an element of the players knowing what’s in front of them on Saturday. When a win wasn’t essential, would it have been wise to bust a gut against Napoli and then be knackered for Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime? It would have made the game easier and less tense to watch, but arguably could have tired the players more before the big league game.
Having started the night at the top of the group, it’s disappointing that Arsenal qualified in second place, but virtually all Gooners would have accepted that when the draw was made. That was the toughest group Arsenal have had to negotiate in many years, and 12 points is a good haul.
The problem now comes in the round of 16. Finishing second means Arsenal will face one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain or Bayern Munich. Having been knocked out by a big team in the last 16 after finishing second in the group before, the Arsenal players will have to prove that this team are made of more compared to the last few years. Some of the fear factor of these sides though has been wiped away with the wins in Munich last season and in Dortmund in the group stages. Personally, I don’t think Barcelona or Real Madrid are as strong as they have been, even though Ronaldo is at the peak of his powers, and Arsenal know they can get a result against Bayern Munich. Atletico are the more unknown side but have started impressively in La Liga, whilst PSG, despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the money, can definitely be put under pressure and beaten.
Arsenal have just about survived the group of death so should believe that they can beat anyone in the Champions League. At least in the round of 16, things will be clearer for the Gunners so they won’t be caught out by not knowing whether to attack or defend, which was their downfall in Naples.


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.