Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Match Preview, Olympiacos v Arsenal: Not the End of the World

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.

We’re 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.

That’s 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.

That’s 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.

Aside 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.

How 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.

It would 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.

Because 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 to advance.

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.

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