The 2012/13 Premier League season is still very young -- only four games in -- but we have gotten a glimpse at what is in store for us between now and May. With the break in league play, we once again appraoched our panel of supporters in the USA and Canada to give their views on the season so far.
So far, so good in the Premier League this season. But Arsenal faces a different test on Tuesday when they face Ligue 1 champions Montpellier in the Champions League. Shortly after the draw for this year's group stage, we asked our panel for their thoughts in this year's competition.
Question: What do you think of Arsenal's Group B opponents and how significant it is that the Club qualified for Europe's most prestigious competition for the 15th consecutive year?
For any team, Arsenal's Group B opponents would probably fall into the "tricky opposition" category, but for Arsenal in particular it seems away fixtures in the Champions League are often much harder than they should be. As in recent seasons, I think solid home form will be the determining factor for advancement into the knockout stages: avoiding loss on the road against Montpellier, followed by two wins at home against Olympiacos and then Schalke will put Arsenal in the driver's seat for first as they prepare to square off against the Germans in a crucial reverse fixture that will come only three days after an away trip to Man United.
For me, Schalke will pose the stiffest opposition to Arsenal's hopes of clinching the top spot because they possess a defense capable of frustrating opponents and protecting a lead, while Montpellier and Olympiacos will most likely just serve as tricky away fixtures rather than compete with Arsenal for total points accumulated in the group. While I don't think finishing top of Group B is a certainty, there's really very little doubt in my mind that Arsenal will once again reach the knockout stages.
When it comes to Arsenal's continued qualification for the Champions League, it's always been interesting to me the way some fans almost seem to begrudge Arsène Wenger the credit he receives for this accomplishment simply because it's viewed as a kind of "substitute" presented by the Arsenal board in place of winning actual trophies. In my opinion, qualifying for the Champions League for 15 consecutive years is a feat that remains notable for its sustainability in a modern era where even cash-laden clubs struggle to regularly qualify (not to mention advance beyond the group stages), so credit where credit's due to Wenger for establishing a standard that should be quite remarkable no matter how you view it.
After I watched the draw, when I wasn't wondering how UEFA can take what is so nerve-wracking an event for so many and make it as sleep-inducing as a CD of "Sounds of the Rainforest," I could only appreciate what good fortune we'd had. The only long trip the team has to make is to Greece in December, and while Schalke is no slouch, Montpellier are the defending Ligue 1 champions (and looked good in their Trophee des Champions loss to Lyon), and Olympiacos beat Arsenal (reserves, to be fair) last December, I would consider it a huge underachievement not to advance from this group. Arsenal as currently constructed are the best of the four teams and should be more than capable of winning the group. But we'll have to see what shakes out (particularly when I go to Gelsenkirchen to see Arsenal beat Schalke 04). It's a funny old game.
It's been a tremendous achievement to have qualified for the group stages for 15 consecutive years, particularly in the silly money era that has pervaded football since 2003, and all credit to Arsène Wenger for being able to build consistently competitive teams. I can't say anyone I know is satisfied with Arsenal finishing 2-4 in the Premier League, but things could be far, far worse if we hadn't done. The money, the ability to tempt players with Champions League football, the prestige of the club, all of that is built on Arsenal's consistent qualification for the ultimate club competition. Now would I trade that for a league title? Perhaps. But you don't want me managing Arsenal; I would have long since sold Abou Diaby, and he showed what a fool I am at Anfield earlier this month.
On paper, Arsenal's Champions' League group does not look as tasty as the supposed group of death (Man City and co.) but if there's anything watching the tournament in the past few years has taught us it is there is never really an ‘easy group' for English teams. Last season, we saw both title-challenging teams from Manchester get knocked out in the group stages (United with a supposedly ‘easy' group). Montpellier is a formidable side, having won the French league last season. Schalke will play host to Arsenal after a crucial game against United and will likely be tricky opponents like most German sides are. Perhaps out of the three, I am most dreading Olympiacos away. The Greek side put up a tough fight last season and as Joel pointed out, European away nights seem to be Achilles heel lately. I am confident that we will make it to the knockout rounds but do think it will be a challenge to top the group.
Our record in qualifying for the Champions League for as long as we have is truly a feat especially considering the budget we have been on in comparison to Real Madrid and Man United, the only other teams to qualify for 15 consecutive years. Making the knockout stages for 13 consecutive years is also remarkable and for that Arsène Wenger deserves the highest of plaudits. Despite this, the Champions League trophy is still a dream yet realized and it especially hurt to see a less than stellar Chelsea side become the first London team to win the trophy last May. Like the Blues showed last season, it takes more than grit and tactics to win the coveted cup - you also need luck on your side. Hopefully Lady Luck will favour Arsenal this season...
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