At this point, there’s no secret about Arsenal’s objective in this evening’s Champions League encounter at Olympiacos: The Gunners must win by two goals or by any score except 1-0 or 2-1 to advance to the competition’s knockout stage.
Falling short would mean Arsenal
wouldn’t advance from the Champions League group stages for the first
time in 16 years. It would also cast the club into the Europa League,
with its potentially awkward Thursday matches in far-flung locales.
at this point because the Gunners fell to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and
Olympiacos at home in their first two matches, so any talk of failure
should really focus on those two performances. Winning today by the
required margin represents a much tougher task.
particularly true because Arsenal will be far from full strength. We
won’t rehash the team’s injury problems but will only note that the
absence of Alexis, when goals against a compact defense are essential,
could be decisive.
In those conditions, it won’t surprise us if
the Gunners don’t succeed to the necessary degree. And that outcome
won’t be a harbinger of the apocalypse.
Yes, winning is
preferable, and this team needs to get back in the habit after its
difficult November. Joining Europe’s best in the Champions League
knockout stage also bolsters Arsenal’s reputation, its finances, and fan
enthusiasm. We’re not arguing any of those points.
But, in and of itself, an exit from the Champions League will not be cataclysmic.
mainly because Arsenal don’t have a realistic chance of winning the
Champions League. Even if they receive a kindly draw in the first
knockout match and buck the recent trend of losing to that initial
opponent, the likelihood of taking out Bayern Munich or Barcelona or
even Juventus or PSG over two legs is remote.
The Europa League, on the other hand, is a competition Arsenal might actually win.
from that calculation, there’s a far worse outcome than failure in
Athens—additional injuries. If any more first team midfielders or
forwards are forced off this evening and then are ruled out for any of
the busy festive schedule, Arsenal’s prospects in the Premier League
will look grim. That would actually be disastrous, given the tight
competition at the top of the table and the Gunners’ legitimate chance
of overtaking current leaders Leicester City in the next few weeks.
much will manager Arsène Wenger account for these implications when he
sends his team out this evening? He’s not the type to shirk a challenge
or to take a tactical loss; that’s why such matches as the 2004 FA Cup
semifinal against Manchester United, when he dipped into his squad to
rest several starters for their run at invincibility and history, sticks
in the memory.
Wenger has also sounded the charge in his comments before the match, saying
“There is one positive thing for us - we know exactly what we have to
do. We know that we have to go for it from the start. So let's do that
and hopefully we can get through.”
An indication of Wenger’s
aggressiveness will be his deployment of Theo Walcott. The forward
played 25 minutes against Sunderland on Saturday after more than a month
on the sidelines with a calf injury. Does the manager give Walcott the
start on the right side of Arsenal’s attack and again send out Olivier
Giroud as the team’s center forward? That would be the most
attack-minded team Arsenal could field at the moment.
also be risky in the short- and medium terms. Walcott won’t provide much
defensive cover for right back Hector Bellerin, and fielding both
Giroud and Walcott, the only two healthy options to lead the Arsenal
line, courts injury danger.
Wenger is a risk taker, but he’s not
crazy. He’ll acknowledge the significant downsides and, more than
likely, keep one of Giroud or Walcott in reserve.
There’s not much
choice to make elsewhere in the Arsenal setup, meaning Mathieu Flamini
and Aaron Ramsey will continue their partnership in midfield. Theirs was
a significant combination offensively on Saturday—Flamini-to-Ramsey was
the team’s top passing connection—but their focus forward left gaps in
the defense that Sunderland exploited on the counterattack.
Olympiacos must only avoid defeat, it can sit back, stymie Arsenal’s
attack, and look to break. Arsenal’s midfielders will therefore need to
be more attentive than they were on Saturday.
A more solid
midfield will mark an important development for Arsenal’s league
campaign as well. Whatever the outcome in Athens, home is where the
focus should be.
Players to Watch:
Olympiacos. Esteban Cambiasso. The
experienced midfielder will be the man to control the tempo and keep
Arsenal’s playmaker Mesut Özil from finding space. If he can shut down
the approaches to the Olympiacos penalty area and move the ball to
attack quickly, Cambiasso will put the Greek side in a strong position
Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The
Frenchman has been producing the goals, ten in Arsenal’s league and
European matches so far this season, and can trouble Olympiacos on set
pieces. If Wenger prefers Theo Walcott’s speed and movement against the
home side’s defensive setup, Giroud can be a decisive substitute.