Champions League, the pinnacle for European club football and perhaps, even world football. It returned yesterday but for the likes of us, it only really starts today. South of France is the destination as Arsenal kicks off our CL campaign with a trip to Marseille. It’s a familiar location as it will be our second visit there under Arsene Wenger. The last time around, Aaron Ramsey decided the tie with a last minute goal and looks likely to feature heavily this time around too.
His consistency of his performance since the start of the season has made Ramsey our most in-form player. Barring any last minute changes, the Welshman is a nailed-on starter in tonight’s opening match of Group D. He may not have heard or know of the criticism about him from the masses last season but if he had, he certainly has responded in the best ever fashion, by keeping mum and kept on producing the goods on the pitch.
While Ramsey will provide the drive for the team, not fazed to dribble forward with the ball and taking on players, the guile is most likely produced by the latest (marquee) signing. Mesut Ozil was seamless in his adaptation to this Arsenal side on his debut last Saturday. Taking into account that he was probably 50 – 70% fit because of his illness, it was more than an encouraging first run-out.
With Santi Cazorla nursing a not-short and not-long (also known as middle) term injury, the onus is on the German playmaker to be the fulcrum of our creativity until the Spaniard comes back to share the role. I doubt that the Marseille defence will be as lax as the Sunderland version of it despite them having the same home record as us this season in the league. Which is one defeat and one win.
The good news on the injury front, are the availability of Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud, both equally important to the cause. We saw how the defence suffered in the absence of the German and his organisation at the back will be needed against one of France’s best sides. As for Giroud, he remains the only senior striker that we have that we can put out. No, I do not consider Theo Walcott a striker, nor do I think that Chuba Akpom can produce the same output, despite his promise.
Normally, I wouldn’t want to rush players back in case there’s a further set-back. However, given how the group was drawn out, it goes without saying that it will serve us well to get maximum points out of what is perceived as the weakest link in the group, in Marseille. The other 2 teams in Napoli and particularly Borussia Dortmund are rightly considered much tougher proposition due to the personnel they have in their squad. 6 points from the Marseille games plus maybe 2 home wins against the other 2, and we will sail out of the toughest CL group we’ve had in ages.
It is good to have Thomas Vermaelen back but given that the captain only just played a few minutes on Saturday and haven’t been first choice for the team since the 2nd quarter of the year, it would be a big gamble to start him. That should mean a return of the Mertesacker-Koscielny axis and that on its own, is encouraging enough. My concern lies more with Jack Wilshere. After being told that we are going to be cautious with him, it seems that Roy Hodgson is doing more in limiting his playing time than Wenger. Yet again, we have to use him because of the paucity in numbers.
Marseille didn’t lose anyone that was pivotal to them last season. Mathieu Valbuena is still at the club, so are the likes of Steve Mandanda and Andre Ayew. They have even managed to add Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet into the squad. Which is to say that despite them being the weakest link in the group, we only write them off at our own peril. There can be no taking lightly of the opponent from our players and hopefully that weak period we saw during the start of the second half against Sunderland, doesn’t crop up either.
This is the place where Dennis Bergkamp scored that goal. Plucking the ball in mid-air to send Netherlands through to the semifinals. We don’t need that kind of magic tonight. Even a scrappy 1-0 win, with no one getting injured is fine by me.
Up The Arsenal.