Group F: Arsenal – Marseille – Olympiacos – Borussia Dortmund.
That doesn’t look like a group of death to me but there is enough in there keep things on edge. Perhaps part of the reason is also that Arsenal will have to go on a long, consistent run before most fans regain complete confidence. The uncertainties on the transfer front don’t help matters either.
This year’s group is certainly tougher than last season’s where Shakhtar, Braga, and Partizan Belgrade provided the competition. Given that Arsenal failed to win that group – which played a big part in drawing Barcelona that led to the fateful second leg right along with the other Cup defeats – there is no reason to assume this season will be any easier.
If anything it will be much harder because the squad is undoubtedly weaker (at the moment) and the opponents stronger. In fairness, Arsene did try wholesale rotations in a couple of key away games last season which contributed to the second place in the group. If the first team plays all the games then first place should not be that difficult. The problem is, with fixtures piling up, playing without rotations is a sure-fire way of risking injuries and fatigue at the business end of the season if not earlier.
Marseille are a good team with an excellent manager in Deschamps. They will be hard to beat, especially at the 60K+ capacity Stade Velodrome. Many of their players are known to Gooners through the constant transfer speculation in the media with Lucho Gonzalez, Andre Ayew, and Mathieu Valbuena being the most recent ones. But, with due respect, I must say there were other much tougher teams in Pot B of the draw.
If we spin this around – which team would you rather have from the second pot – it’s hard to pick any other team over Marseille. Milan and Villareal are clearly stronger in my opinion while Valencia are always a challenge. We already know how strong Shakhtar can be. Benfica were no pushovers even if it was just a pre-season friendly. Arsenal don’t have a great record in Russia so CSKA might not be as easy as some would like to think. Lyon are probably in the same boat as Marseille. All-in-all Deschamp’s side are not the worst possible opponents.
From the timing point of view, Arsenal go to France, on Oct 19, between home games with Sunderland and Stoke. That should lessen the impact of travel considerably. The return leg at home is on 1st Nov after the visit to Stamford Bridge and before hosting West Brom.
Olympiacos will be the third team in the pool. Arsenal played them as recently as the group stage of the 2009-10 season where the home leg was won 2-0 but the return was lost by half that score. We must not forget that was a virtually meaningless last game and Wenger gave a chance to Tom Cruise, Bartley, Merida, and Kerrea Gilbert in that game. Or let me just say that Silvestre was the Captain on the night! A 1-0 loss doesn’t look so bad then, does it?
I think the two games with the Greeks can be negotiated well and they will certainly not be harder than the ones against Udinese. It’s a long trip though and that can have an adverse impact on the League games. Arsenal host the Greeks on Sept 28. That game is preceded by a visit by Bolton and followed by a trip to White Hart Lane. The long trip is the last game of the group phase on Dec 6 after a visit to Wigan and before a home tie with Everton.
Arsenal have definitely landed the toughest team from the fourth pot in reigning German champions Borussia Dortmund. They have a very young and exciting team with a talented manager so the two games should be spectacular. I have a feeling Marseille and Olympiacos will rue drawing the Germans more than Arsenal.
The Gunners kick-off the group stage with a visit to Germany on Sept 13, just after the home game with Swansea and before the visit to Blackburn. The home game on Nov 23rd is sandwiched between the visit to Norwich and the home derby with Fulham.
I think the draw has been kind to Arsenal in that none of these games have thrown up too many away games or tough ties in a row.
Before ending I want to briefly touch upon the other groups.
Group A is by far the toughest one with Bayern, Villareal, City and Napoli. It will be a good test for Mancini and could have a real impact on their League aspirations as well. The Italian has the squad that can work well despite rotations but in practice it’s not as easy as it looks on paper.
Group B is quite a boring one with Inter, CSKA, Lille, and Trabzonspor. I doubt I will watch any game from that one.
United have a mouth-watering draw in Group C with Benfica, Basle and the deliciously named minnows Otelul Galati.
Real and Lyon meet again, this time in the group phase. D also includes Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatian side will be worth watching as they could have a future star or two in their line-up.
Chelsea’s latest acquisition Juan Mata will be reunited with Valencia in Group E. Leverkusen and Genk make it a relatively easy group for Andre Villas-Boas.
Porto, Shakhtar, Zenit, and APOEL make up group G. Any of those teams can qualify for the knockout phase.
In the final group, Barcelona got Milan, BATE Borisov, and Viktoria Plzen who were impressive against Copenhagen in the qualifier. The European giants should come through without much trouble.