The UEFA Champions League is without question one for the most exciting competitions in all of sports. But long before a club can be crowned Champion of Europe, they must battle their way through their group of four teams – selected though a seeded draw.
Fans all over the world sit on the edge of their seats as club names are pulled from pots and the groups are slowly constructed. Without fail there is always a "group of death" and something that looks more akin to a cakewalk. This year, many observers agree that Arsenal landed in the former.
But is that a bad thing – or a good thing? On one hand, an easy group gives a club a much better chance to advance to the lucrative knock-out stages. But on the other hand, who doesn't want to see their club face-off against another top team in Europe?
We turned to our panel of supporters in the USA and Canada to get their thoughts on the draw and find out which extreme they personally prefer.
Question: What do you think of Arsenal's draw in the Champions League and would you rather see a very competitive group or one that looks like a bit easy on paper?
I have to admit I was slightly daunted at the task we were assigned at the Champions league draw a couple of weeks ago. On paper, it is perhaps the most difficult group of the lot. Group F for Fiddlesticks (amongst many other words)!
I commented then that all of the teams we had drawn could be in pot 1 and nobody would bat an eyelash - French mainstays Marseille, last year's runners up Borussia Dortmund and a rejuvenated Napoli. These were all teams we had faced in the last few years - Marseille and Dortmund during the group stages in 2011 and Napoli during the Emirates Cup in August.
Marseille (Champions League Group Stages, 2011)
I remember these matches being incredibly cagey affairs and the score lines reflect that. Aaron Ramsey scored the winning goal in the dying minutes of the away fixture, thus salvaging a couple of points. The fixture at the Emirates also resulted in a forgettable 0-0 scoreline. The Arsenal squad has changed quite a bit since these matches and hopefully the new creative duo in Cazorla and Ozil can help us against a tough French defense. It also helps that Ramsey seems to have found his scoring boots again.
There's no doubt that these group stage matches will be anything but boring. The Emirates was built for matches like these.Zara Bashir
Dortmund (Champions League Group Stages, 2011)
The European and German runners up are perhaps our biggest competition in the group. Even though they sold home grown wunderkid Mario Gotze to Bayern Munich over the summer, the club has also done very well to invest in replacements with Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and more notably Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ligue 1's highest goal scorer from last season. They will be ready to put in a proper fight again in this campaign.
Napoli (Emirates Cup, 2013)
Arsenal faced a Napoli side led by Rafael Benitez on the opening day of this season's Emirates Cup. The Italian side boasted 5 new signings, one of them being long-time Arsenal target Gonzalo Higuain and led the score line by 2-0 at half time. The Gunners fought back in the second half with goals from the French duo Giroud and Koscielny to tie the match at full time, much to the relief of the home crowd. This new-look Napoli side will be challenging, as Benitez is very familiar with English football and Arsenal's style having managed in the PL for years. It's also important to note that perhaps this was not the best match to extrapolate from as it was a pre-season friendly and Arsenal have made a very notable addition to the squad since (a certain German).
That being said, the beauty of this competition is that anything can happen. The Arsenal team had been written off against eventual champions Bayern Munich after the first leg at the Emirates last season. Nobody had expected the Gunners to beat them at the Allianz Arena and keep a clean sheet! There's no doubt that these group stage matches will be anything but boring. The Emirates was built for matches like these.
Bring it on.
I can echo Zara's disappointment at the road we face in the group stages this season. Having only seen the draw after it was complete, my initial reaction was a shouted expletive and hands to my face. So I think it's fairly obvious I would prefer a cakewalk draw to the hand we've been dealt; no, that's putting it too mildly. I want Arsenal's Champions League draw every season to consist of Slavia Prague, Braga, and in a rare disregard for UEFA rules and the laws of time and space, the Derby County team of 2007-2008. A group like that means you could clinch the group by the fourth match and play your kids for the final two.
Honestly, what would be the point of hoping for a tough draw? Experience? Pshaw. PSHAW I SAY!
In the end, we must play the hand we are dealt, as distasteful as that may seem. Napoli and Dortmund certainly were the toughest draws from their respective pots. Marseille, though, for being a very tough team and possessed of one of the most daunting home crowds in Europe, are still preferable to Milan, Juve, or PSG, and the trip is much shorter than going to Ukraine or Russia, and thus will prove less exhausting an away leg. So while we do have what is perhaps the most difficult draw of any of the Pot A clubs, we can be thankful for what small breaks we did get.
At the end of the day, this is a difficult group to predict, and each club's supporters will fancy their chances to advance.Brett Chase
Zara's memory of our last encounters with Marseille is correct. Both the home and away matches were tightly contested matches that tended to get bogged down in midfield without too many chances and fewer goals. The results from an Arsenal standpoint were favorable, taking four points from a side that battled very hard.
There have of course been significant changes to the Arsenal squad since we last met, however. We were at the time perhaps too reliant on the brilliance of van Persie that season to create goals, but in matches against clubs with well-organized team defenses in place, such as Marseille, we were unable to provide much service from a midfield that was denied space to do much with our possession. The current incarnation of Arsenal features much more creativity from midfield, particularly from Santi Cazorla and a vastly improved Aaron Ramsey. The addition of Mesut Özil, it is to be expected, will make us much better able to unlock a frustrating defense. If our talented German creator fits in quickly, we should be better suited to deal with the French giants.
Marseille's lineup has remained more consistent; their most dangerous players, Mathieu Valbuena and Andre Ayew remain, and after losing Loic Remy to QPR last season, they've added goalscoring midfielder Florian Thauvin. Many are projecting Marseille to finish bottom of this tough group; I think they might provide the trickiest fixtures of all for Arsenal.
Borussia Dortmund, last season's Champions League runners-up, likewise suffered a loss and a draw to Arsenal in the same season's group stage, both in nervy, open-ended affairs. In the away leg, Arsenal took a 1-0 lead in the 63rd minute, only to allow a preventable long-range strike at the death from Ivan Perisic (since moved to Wolfsburg) and surrendering two points. I attended the home leg, in which brace of goals from the Van Persie sent Arsenal into the knockout round; one of these was scored after Alex Song improbably dribbled through three defenders out on the left wing before sending an inch-perfect cross to be headed home.
It is worth noting, however, that Arsenal only took control of possession, and the match, after Dortmund lost both Mario Gotze and Sven Bender to injury. As Zara says, Borussia Dortmund strengthened after losing Götze (I think the Mkhitaryan signing might prove particularly inspired), and have retained striker Lewandowski. If they gel properly, they might be even better than the team that reached the final last season. I won't label them favorites, but they're certainly capable of doing some damage in the group.
Being the best team in the world is never easy; you’re going to have tough matches throughout the Champions League anyway.Josh Ellis
For whatever reason, despite requiring a pair of second-half goals to force a draw in the Emirates Cup in August, I actually think Napoli might be the easiest team in a difficult group. Marek Hamšík remains a threat from the midfield while diminutive playmaker Lorenzo Insigne is certainly dangerous with the ball at his feat, yet I think losing Edinson Cavani will leave a gap despite signing Higuain to replace him. Rafa is a qualified manager in Europe, and is probably a better cup manager than in the regular season, but he may have his work cut out for him. I'm also not convinced by their bringing in Pepe Reina in goal; the Spaniard's form has been poorer each season since arriving at Liverpool and a howler never seems far off.
At the end of the day, this is a difficult group to predict, and each club's supporters will fancy their chances to advance. I do think that Arsenal will have the strength necessary to navigate into the knock-out stages yet again, particularly if the Gunners' injury list ceases to grow (knocking wood while I type). Anything can happen in the Champions League, however, and often does. We should be prepared for a rather bumpy ride.
When the Champions League Draw was occurring I was on a conference call, paying less attention to the call and more attention to the draw. I’m afraid the folks on the other end heard my gasps when I saw Dortmund and Napoli’s names pop up in Group F. Despite a less than favorable draw, I hope to shed some clarity on the matter.
Would it be nice to see Arsenal drawn an easy group? Absolutely. But being the best team in the world is never easy; you’re going to have tough matches throughout the Champions League anyway and surely there have been teams in the past that have failed to progress with much easier draws than the one Arsenal has this year.
The way I see it, line Arsenal up against anyone in the world, let our quality shine and pick up results.
The views expressed above are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of Arsenal Football Club or Arsenal Media Group.Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 16 Sep 2013