Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Marseille v Arsenal – Preview

UEFA Champions League: Group F tablePWDLFAGDPts
1. Marseille22004046
2. Arsenal21103214
3. Borussia Dortmund201114-31
4. Olympiacos200213-20

Arsenal face a difficult task tonight in the third game of the Champions League group phase at the intimidating Stade Vélodrome – although Arsenal may benefit from the fact that Marseille’s ‘twelfth man’ will be somewhat handicapped by the reduced capacity of the stadium at present, due to ongoing redevelopment work for Euro 2016.

Traditionally one of the powerhouses of French football, Marseille chased Lille for the Ligue 1 title last season. They finished second in 2010/11, good enough to secure entry into the Champions League group stage, where, after the draw was made for Group F, they might have been expected to struggle against Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. So far, however, they have confounded expectations with two wins from two matches – including a 3-0 home win against Dortmund – leaving them currently sitting top of the group.

Domestically however, their form mirrors that of the Gunners. Marseille have started slowly, taking only 9 points from ten games – those coming from a solitary home win and six draws, three gained at home and three on their travels. That leaves them in 15th place in Ligue 1.

Arsenal should not underestimate this team, however, and judging from Wenger’s pre-match comments he is fully aware of the threat they pose to our qualification hopes. Didier Deschamps’ side may not have been firing on all cylinders of late, but they have some talented players in the form of André Ayew, Loïc Rémy, Mathieu Valbuena, Alou Diarra and Lucho Gonzales – Arsene recently admitted that he attempted to get the latter on loan in the last transfer window. Then again they’ve also got the one and only Djimi Traoré (possibly the worst player to own a Champions League winners’ medal?), although, having signed a one-year deal at the start of the season, he hasn’t actually featured for Les Phocéens yet. Still, Marseille played well on the counter against Dortmund and punished the Germans – the Gunners will have to be wary of this and try to spring a few surprises of their own.

Although the bookies have the French side as favourites to win tonight, if Arsenal play as they did for the first 20-25 minutes against Sunderland they are capable of getting a result. Three points would take us to the top of Group F, with a return visit to Emirates still to come for Marseille (on Tuesday 1st November). Realistically most fans would happily take a draw, which would still leave Arsenal in a good position – within two points of the group leaders with that return match to come as well as another home tie to play against Borussia Dortmund.

The squad who have made the trip to the South of France does not include Kieran Gibbs, who is still suffering from the stomach strain he picked up against Sunderland, but Aaron Ramsey returns. Frimpong has not been included but Francis Coquelin has – a sign that Wenger prefers the latter’s more considered football to the gung-ho style of the former? It is probably simply a reflection of Coquelin’s flexibility given that he has the ability to play in defence if called upon.

With Sagna absent it will be interesting to see if Jenkinson retains his place at right-back or whether Arsene will move Koscielny there and play either Djourou or even Alex Song alongside Mertesacker. Similarly the midfield line-up will provide an indication of Wenger’s current thinking – conventional wisdom for a European away night would dictate a more cautious defensive approach. On the other hand, both Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin played well at the weekend, while it is also possible that Wenger will have one eye on the Stoke game, in which case we might see an appearance for the so-far underused Yossi Benayoun.

With RvP in sparkling form the centre-forward position picks itself, but Marouane Chamakh has been favoured over Chu Young Park for a place on the bench. We have seen next to nothing of the South Korean so far other than a short cameo in the Carling Cup game against Shrewsbury, but given his excellent international goal-scoring form and familiarity with French football – 103 league appearances for Marseille’s regional rivals Monaco – it seems a little odd that he has not made the trip. Of course, Chamakh also knows French football very well; he came to us from Girondins de Bordeaux, and arguably offers a different option tactically, including a strong aerial threat.

The game is being televised live on terrestrial television tonight (ITV1, coverage starts at 7.30pm), and Arsenal fans across the country will be taking up positions on sofas with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Our Champions League form so far has been decent, at least the equal of Manchester City and Manchester United, who both laboured to scrappy wins last night – Marseille are a tougher challenger than either Villarreal or Oțelul Galați, but hopefully we'll also be able to follow the Mancs' example and secure three points.

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