The Champions League draws were made today in Monaco, with the usual fanfare and tense anticipation. The draws did not disappoint, as they threw up some tasty ties as always. My dear Arsenal, fell into a very tough group along with 1997 champions and last year’s beaten finalists, Borussia Dortmund, 1993 champions Olympic Marseille and Serie A runners up Napoli.
This is no doubt a very tough group, with worthy opponents. Each single game promises to be a feast of soccer and I can hardly wait. As expected, this has generated a lot of discussions as with all things Arsenal. Many people, fans and ‘pundits’ alike, have already written off Arsenal’s chances even before a ball has been kicked. I find this very amusing and surprising. Needless to say, I do not agree with the naysayers and I will show why I think Arsenal are in fact favorites to not only qualify from this group, but also top it.
First off, let’s look at the competition starting with Dortmund. For many Arsenal fans, Dortmund is a team we all wish we could emulate. They play attractive football, spend within their means, fill up their intimidating stadium, ‘modern’ young manager and win trophies on a regular basis. This is a team that until last season, broke the monopoly enjoyed by Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. They helped to raise the level of football played in Germany and were very impressive on their way to the Champions League finals.
Though they have sold Mario Goetze to Bayern, that money was reinvested into the squad and more importantly, they have retained the services of Robert Lewandowski, the deadly Polish striker whose form in front of goal is something Arsenal fans can only dream of. They are former champions and will be looking forward to going one better than their final appearance last season. Their games versus Arsenal and Napoli will be great to watch and they will most likely decide their fate. Their titanic battle for domestic superiority against Bayern Munich may be a disadvantage to them, if they are unable to get a good balance between the UCL and the Bundesliga.
Napoli has been experiencing resurgence in recent years. Much like the Levy business down the road from us, Napoli sold their best player Edson Cavani to the highest bidder PSG and splashed the money on big signings. Annoyingly, they snatched their biggest signing, one Gonzalo Higuain from under our noses. They got Albiol and Pepe Reina in goal from Liverpool, in addition to a sprinkling of other talents to add to a very good squad boasting of the deadly Marek Hamsik, the hard working Inler and the outstanding defender Paolo Cannavaro.
Their best signing of course, may turn out to be their manager, Champions League winner Rafa Benitez. The wily tactician knows the European scene very well, having also won the old UEFA Cup and most recently led Chelski to the Europa League. He also knows Arsenal inside out, having played us so many times over his two spells in England. They are a team that plays very high tempo counter attacking football. It remains to be seen how Rafa’s tactics play out. They will definitely be a hard test for all the teams if they are able to gel well and understand how Rafa wants them to play.
Olympic Marseille may not be the biggest team in France anymore with the arrival of the Arab money both in PSG and Monaco. They however pushed PSG all the way last season, with a combination of a very youthful squad led by the Ayews’ and great attacking football. They easily represent the weakest team on paper but can also be dangerous dark horses. They are after all former Champions from 1993 when they had their golden generation. I feel that any team that fails to beat Marseille home and away will not qualify.
Arsenal for me will not only qualify from this group (whether or not Wenger buys), but we would win it. We are one of the most consistent teams in the UCL in terms of qualifying from our groups. We are good travellers and often play better away from home. The experience of 16 straight seasons in the UCL, means we know exactly what is required to get past the group stage, by amassing the magic 10 points required. We have beaten Dortmund two seasons ago and our impressive victory at Bayern last season (the only loss suffered by the treble winners at home all season), will give the players belief that we can get a result at Dortmund. We will beat Marseille home and away, because apart from being the better team, Arsenal does normally beat French opposition quite comfortably. These matches should be no different.
Napoli away looks to be the toughest test on paper. Even there I think Arsenal can lean on our very good record in Italy, where the likes of Inter, A.C Milan (not the last visit) and Udinese have all been beaten. While we may have a small squad in terms of numbers (we will buy players, I hope), I am firmly with Wenger that we have enough quality to negotiate this group. In fact, it is the fans of Marseille, Dortmund and Napoli that should be afraid of meeting Arsenal. Gooners must not allow the negativity surrounding the club blind them from the fact that as far as Champions League group stakes are concerned, Arsenal are more experienced than any of their opponents and we have players to actually win these games.
As Arsene Wenger said, we have earned the right to play the best and this is what we want. We have been written off by the same pundits who said we won’t even make the Champions League back in March. When the draws were made for the qualifiers, we got a tough draw and they said there was no way we could beat Fernabache, especially with a wafer thin squad crying for new recruits, crises on the back of a thrashing by Villa on the opening day of the season at home. Yet we beat them 5-0 on aggregate. There is a reason why we were the only seeded team in the group. This group of players has great team spirit fostered in adversity. I have no doubt in my mind that when the group games are over, Arsenal will be on top of the table.