Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Arsenal v Olympiacos – Preview

Arsenal would normally expect to beat Olympiakos at the Emirates tonight. Having said that, Manchester United barely salvaged a draw against Basel at Old Trafford last night. Similarly, City are finding that progressing in the Champions League is far from an easy task (it still seems incredible that many bookies had them as fourth favourites to win the trophy, despite the fact that this season marks their debut in the competition). Both these salient facts add credence to Wenger’s recent assertion that many Gooners have not given the team due credit for their admirable fourteen-season Champions League record to date.

However, despite appearing to be in almost total disarray a few weeks ago, the Gunners showed considerable European nous in getting past Udinese en route to the group stage and if they can now produce another performance to match the Dortmund game then a win ought to be achievable.

Putting such a performance together could be difficult though, largely because Arsenal will be without Walcott, Koscielny and Gervinho. All are big losses, particularly since potential replacements Squillaci, Djourou and Benayoun are out as well. Diaby, Vermaelen and now Wilshere too remain on the long-term injured list. Yet again the team’s lack of strength in depth has been painfully highlighted – worryingly, Mertesacker and Ignasi Miquel are now the only recognised centre-halves available for the game. This would constitute a big test for the young Spaniard, who had okay games in the Carling Cup tie against Shrewsbury and in the loss against Liverpool, but has no experience in European competition for Arsenal. It’s not even as though he would be slotting into an established back-line. As such, Wenger has indicated that Song will partner Mertesacker at the back, and we can only hope this far from ideal pairing comes through this baptism of fire relatively unscathed. In all likelihood they’ll line up in front of Szczesny and alongside Sagna and probably Santos. Ramsey, Arteta, Arshavin and possibly Frimpong and Rosicky will probably feature, 100-goal hero Robin van Persie leading the line to complete the eleven. Frimpong has the quality to play at this level but will need to show maturity and discipline. Composure is key for young Manu, rather than charging around like the proverbial bull in a china shop (or ‘the Demolition Man’, as some Gooners have dubbed him, presumably a reference to the 1993 Wesley Snipes film of the same name - which also makes a nice counterpoint to Aaron Ramsey's ‘Rambo’ sobriquet). It is of course possible that Wenger might put the promising Coquelin in instead, and could conceivably even give Chamberlain the nod over Tomas Rosicky, who seems incapable of playing consistently well for a whole 90 minutes. Age and injuries have taken their toll on the Czech, perhaps, but then he has always had a tendency to drop out of games.

You would hope that still ought to be enough to see off Olympiacos. Fans will note a couple of familiar names in the opposing squad, notably ex-Villa players Olof Mellberg and Jean Makoun, as well as the talented Belgian forward Kevin Mirallas. Olympiacos typically play a defensive 4-5-1, so Arsenal will have to work hard to break them down at the Emirates. However, the Greeks have never won in England, and indeed have only ever scored one goal – against Liverpool at Anfield. We also beat them at home in the Champions League in 2009, so the stats at least are on our side.

Ahead of the game Wenger is being his typically reserved self. He seems to have picked up a Cantona-esque taste for the footballing metaphor recently, calling us ‘a train that started late from the station’ this season. He rightly acknowledges that Arsenal must continue to build on the consistency they now look to be finding, but this will be difficult with such a depleted side. It is also key not to make the same mistakes as United seemingly did last night – namely, being rather too careless and cavalier.

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