Arsenal are visiting Greece for the final group game with top spot secured. Such games can easily become an unwanted, tiresome chore but they can also be an opportunity for the some of the players to show what they are capable of with a chance to perform in a pressure-free environment.
Of course, we don’t want the team to be frivolous and roll over but I feel the squad that Wenger has taken to Olympiacos is full of professionals who respect the badge on their shirt and the game/competition. All-in-all it should be a very exciting performance from a promising bunch. Given that it comes so close on the heels of the Carling Cup tie, the players should feel some sort of continuity and be motivated enough to avoid back-to-back defeats (considering only the second string).
The home fans will undoubtedly create a raucous atmosphere but that should help the youngsters if they approach the game with the right mentality. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine tyros like Frimpong, Coquelin and the Ox being daunted by the occasion or the crowd. For the youngsters it should be about enjoying the game while expressing themselves with real belief and desire.
Interestingly, it’s just under two years since a similarly young Arsenal side lost against the Greeks in a dead rubber (this game is only half-dead). This time around I feel both sides will have greater quality and the game should be more of a spectacle.
Picking the starting line-up will not be easy for Arsene. He has a bit of a shortage at the back whereas Le Boss might have to leave one or two deserving players out in midfield/attack.
Vermaelen and Santos are in the squad but I will be surprised if either of them starts. Last time around Wenger fielded Kerrea Gilbert and Tom Cruise at full back positions. Yennaris and Miquel should be able to do the job in this game. Squillaci and Djourou can provide the experience in the centre of defence. The upcoming period is hectic and it’s important to rest first choice players whenever possible.
The aforementioned trio of Frimpong, Coquelin, and AOC should be in the midfield ahead of them but it will be interesting to see if Arsene retains the 4-4-2 from last Tuesday. That would mean Benayoun on the left with Chamakh and Park leading the line.
I am not against retaining the shape and these players but Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yenanris on the right might not be a good idea defensively. In that case we might see Djourou moving to the right with Vermaelen in the middle, or Miquel in the middle and Santos on the left. It won’t be ideal but will depend on the kind of confidence the manager has in his younger players.
Then there is the option of playing three in central midfield with Rosicky back to fitness. An extra midfielder could compensate for the inexperience on the right. Such an option would see one of Park or Chamakh missing out.
Arshavin is another player who needs/deserves a game but Arsene will find it hard to fit him in the starting eleven. One option is to play him on the left with Benayoun in the middle as the third midfielder. Rosicky has just returned from (another) injury so starting him might not be a smart move.
A tweak to that side could see Arshavin drop into the hole with a four man midfield behind him and a striker in front. This would be very similar to the formation against Bolton.
As you can see, there is no shortage of options for Arsene but finding the right balance in the starting eleven and resting key players at the same time will not be easy.
Preferred starting eleven,
Fabianski – Yennaris, Squillaci, Djourou, Miquel – AOC, Frimpong, Coquelin, Benayoun – Arshavin – Park.
It will be harsh on Chamakh who has been working hard and is desperately in need of match-practice but I feel the incisiveness that Arshavin provides will be critical. The Korean captain makes a number of runs and having a teammate capable of finding them can work for the team and for the confidence of both players.
Olympiacos have a chance of qualifying and will give their all in this game. I expect them to press high up the pitch and put the Arsenal defence under pressure. They won’t ease off as City did, albeit tactically, in the Cup tie last week. The Gunners might have to play on the break and having a quick passer with vision, like Arshavin, behind a runner like Park can provide interesting counter-attacking opportunities. Chamakh and Park in tandem might not see enough of the ball. The Russian’s creativity can also benefit Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Given the performances of the hosts thus far in the tournament, it’s safe to assume this won’t be an easy game for any side that Wenger picks. A win will be an extraordinary achievement but is not impossible. A draw will be commendable while a defeat can also be respectable as long as the players prove they are willing to fight for the cause.
It’s not often that Arsenal are the only English side to qualify on top with a game to spare while the others have serious question marks over qualifying and/or getting the top spot. It’s genuinely an occasion to enjoy.