Arsène Wenger believes all four teams can be lethal in the so-called ‘Group of Death’ this season.
Arsenal kick off their Champions League campaign in earnest on Wednesday night at Marseille. The Ligue 1 runners-up were plucked from pot two in the draw back in August. Last season’s beaten finalists Dortmund and Napoli, second in Serie A, would follow from pots three and four respectively to compete a quartet of seemingly unrelenting quality.
So it was interesting to hear a French journalist at the pre-match press conference asking the Arsenal manager if Marseille were realistic challengers for the top two places in Group F. In response, Wenger was full of respect.
"Marseille are very good defensively, very strong physically and have this experience of playing big games in their stadium"
“People say that Dortmund and Napoli are our first opponents but I think that Marseille will have their chance,” he said. “A couple of years ago there was a similar group but it was Marseille and Arsenal who qualified. Nothing is played yet and they have an opportunity to qualify.”
The French side would reach the quarter-finals that year but indifferent domestic form saw them slip to 10th and miss out on the competition last season. However they are back with a re-modelled team. Coach Elle Baup has emphasised youth by bringing in emerging stars from around Ligue 1 - namely Florian Thauvin, Dimitri Payet, Mario Lamina, Benjamin Mendy and Gianelli Imbula. It is a policy Wenger knows well.
“In the framework of the financial hierarchy, Marseille are in the same situation I was in with Arsenal several years ago,” he said. “They will take players who are not bought by Monaco or PSG. Of course, they have to rely on the future and this is a very intelligent technique. It will be fruitful.”
However the established attacking threat of Mathieu Valbuena, Andre Ayew and Andre-Pierre Gignac remain from the side beaten by Aaron Ramsey’s injury-time strike in October 2011.
The last of those is in fine form. He scored in Marseille’s first three games this season and, as a result, has won his first French cap for three years.
“At the moment, he has this conviction that he will score,” said Wenger. “That is one of his strongest points. He has a quick shot, he uses his body very well so we have to be tough with him in physical confrontations, man-to-man. This is how basically you defend against him. Of course we also have to cover each other at the back and we have to communicate.”
The other factor is the atmosphere at Stade Velodrome. The stadium was undergoing renovation when Arsenal played here two years ago and that remains the case for Wednesday’s game. But significant progress has been made and this famously-vibrant venue should be magnificent by Euro 2016. At his pre-match press conference, Wenger spoke as if the atmosphere would be an opponent in itself - as well as the side they were facing.
“First of all, there is a passionate home crowd here in this city and then the team of Marseille have a compact game,” he said. “They are very good defensively, very strong physically and have this experience of playing big games in their stadium. And then you cannot forget about their offensive players like Valbuena and Gignac.”
Not that Arsenal should have any apprehension. Liverpool’s draw at Swansea on Monday night knocked them off top spot in the Premier League. They went there with a 3-1 win at Sunderland on Saturday, a success that means they have now won nine away games in a row in all competitions - a run that began at Bayern Munich as they exited last season’s Champions League.
"Away from home we have always been audacious"
The manager has attributed this to the ‘gelling’ of his team and countered suggestions that something had dramatically changed in their approach.
“Away from home we have always been audacious,” he said. “Through some spells at home we played with the handbrake on because we did not have the same confidence that we had away from the Emirates. But if you look at record away from home in the Champions League it compares with anyone. It does not always end with a win unfortunately but we always try to play.”
Olivier Giroud has shaken off the knee injury that forced him off at Sunderland and is expected to play. Per Mertesacker is back from illness and Thomas Vermaelen will be pushing for a start having featured for the first time on Saturday. Youngsters Chuba Akpom and Isaac Hayden have been added to the squad as a result of injuries elsewhere. But then they would have been in Marseille anyway as Arsenal begin their campaign in the new Uefa Youth League on Wednesday. The groups and the fixtures are derived from those drawn in the main competition. The two teams travelled out together and the ‘juniors’ will watch the ‘seniors’ after their game is completed.
Mesut Ozil is expected to make his Champions League debut for the Club after shaking off illness. The German introduced himself with an assist inside his first 650 seconds as an Arsenal player and Wenger feels there will no adaption necessary on Wednesday.
“When you have a good technical level, you are suited to this competition because it is usually two teams that are used to playing at the top of their league,” he concluded.
“It is two teams who try to create chances and, in this kind of game, creative players are very important.”
And, after just 90 minutes for the Club, Ozil already looks like Arsenal’s VIP.
Marseille: Diawara (doubt - thigh)
Arsenal: Rosicky (hamstring), Sanogo (back), Arteta (thigh), Ox-Chamberlain (knee), Podolski (hamstring), Diaby (knee)
Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR)
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