Or More Trouble on the Continent?
Can Arsenal actually compete with the best in Europe or has the predictability of the tournament–not to mention the additional exertions it requires–sucked the life-blood out of our club? How Do Gooners really feel about these European Nights? Are they ‘Big’ or are they just a big drag?
Personally, I love the Champions League, even if I think it could be improved and reformatted into a better competition. Yes, it’s true, with the money pouring into the game it gets more and more predictable and it seems that only a handful of teams could actually win the big trophy. Still, there’s just something that little bit exotic about these trips to foreign cities. Hearing different languages and seeing different ways the game is played and appreciated is one of the fundamental pleasures of the sport. In a certain way, you just never know what to expect in these matches and that’s never a bad thing.
To begin this, our 18th consecutive appearance in the tournament, Arsenal travel to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, to play Dinamo. I haven’t had a lot of time to research this match but what I can tell you is this: these are the invincibles of this part of the Balkans. 41 matches without a loss means that Arsenal will play a group unaccustomed to giving away points.
It will be all the tougher because we can expect a full house at the Maksimir Stadion with fans full of a special sort of passion for their club, one that has been riddled by controversy and scandal in recent times, despite their winning ways. Just as Arsenal are a club with dramatic narratives underpinning all the action, so too is EVERY club. For further reading, and it’s a good one, check this out: http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2015/sep/15/dinamo-zagreb-arsenal-mamic-brothers-champions-league
Arsenal, of course, bring our own drama and narratives wherever we go and this, our first midweek match of the season, surely will get into the blood of die-hard Gooners. News that Jack Wilshere will be joining Danny Welbeck (and Tomas Rosicky) in the long-time, recovering-from-surgery group will make some Gooners minds skid as out of control as Per Mertesacker’s automobile recently did on the M1.
We know that manager Arsene Wenger needs to rotate his squad ahead of the early Saturday kickoff at Chelsea but we also know that full points are needed to get off on the correct footing in this competition. With Bayern Munich in the group, nearly all pundits are predicting we’ll come 2nd, meaning another tough round of 16 battle in the new year. Stumbling out of the blocks in Zagreb would make that qualification all the harder; starting the group stage in style and taking the full points back to London would swing the pressure back onto Bayern and create a bit of breathing room–and excitement–for the looming matches with the German champions.
How then does Wenger balance all those priorities? My thought is that we’ll see a measure of rotation in the squad, especially at the running positions (fullback) but also a desire to continue honing the continuity of the squad, especially in our possession and attacking game. Getting anybody amongst those from whom we expect goals off the bagel (as we sometimes say here in the States–i.e., Alexis, Rambo, Santi, Ozil, Ox) would be a very good thing. Tight at the back, strong on the ball and, most of all, clinical with our chances (something we have lacked thus far this season) and we might be able to rest players who will be needed for the lunchtime kickoff on Saturday. Here’s my best guess at Wenger’s starting group.
Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Monreal, Arteta, Ramsey, Walcott, Campbell
Some, of course, will argue for deeper rotation (some, perhaps, for none at all) but I think a group somewhat like this gives chances to those who might need a bit of match time while allowing for some of the key partnerships to continue growing ahead of the tough match against the (struggling, backs-to-the-wall) domestic champions. The objective must be to control the match through possession and technical superiority and get the early goal(s) so that we don’t have to press for them late on. Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, and who knows, Dinamo may yet be developing another Luka Modric or two. Surely their proud players–who haven’t experienced defeat in such a long time–will come into the match with other ideas.
So, what say you, fellow Gooners? How do you feel about the Champions League? Do you find it exciting or has the lustre gone? Have too many years of just qualifying (for the group AND elimination rounds) got Gooners thinking more about our domestic competitions or is there still a thrill in taking our team to the Continent?
More specifically, who would you send into this opening night battle? How important is the result and how should the manager try to balance getting the points in Croatia ahead of the Saturday Match at Stamford Bridge? Or perhaps he should also be thinking longer term and about the two matches per week schedule we now face until the next international break.
In many ways, with only a match per week, the distraction (and then disappointing conclusion) of the transfer window and that first international break, fans of the game live on tenterhooks during August, perhaps reading too much into each result and rumour. As Summer eases into Autumn and the matches come thick and fast we start to learn more about our team and what questions we’ll really be asking as the days get darker. Is this when the season really starts? Perhaps?
If so, I say, let the games begin…