Tomorrow night sees the first half of fixtures take place as the Champions League Matchday 2 gets underway. Group F will see the two Matchday 1 winners come together as Bayern Munich host Dinamo Zagreb at the Allianz Arena. Olympiakos travel to London to take on Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium as both sides look to put their previous round’s defeats behind them.
The defeat to Bayern was a blow, but more importantly, it was the group’s other result that meant Matchday 1 was the worst possible start the Reds could have hoped for. With the game into the final ten minutes and Bayern having a slender 0-1 lead, Thrylos fans the world over held their breath as Leandro Salino received the ball and glided into Neuer’s box, leaving him one-on-one with the much lauded goalkeeper. Salino undoubtedly will have had a sleepless night that night, replaying the moment over in his head, as he let the ball run one stride too many and ended up pulling his left footed strike just wide of Neuer’s upright. The scores should have been levelled allowing Silva to instruct his team to all stay behind the ball and see out the final minutes ensuring the 2015/16 European campaign started with a hard earned point. Instead, the team crumbled at the back and despite the visitor’s undisputed dominance of the game left with a rather flattering 0-3 scoreline. Oly started the game rather well, showing some good attacking intent in the first 10 minutes, however, it wasn’t long before the Germans started to flex their muscles and for much of the match we were playing with our backs to the wall. A fine defensive display in the main and being able to absorb so much pressure meant a narrow 1-0 loss would have been regarded as a fair result. Bayern Munich have been one of a few great teams in Europe in recent seasons, as a result even the most hardened and delusional Thrylos fan will have admitted getting anything out of the Munich games would have been nigh on impossible.
Whatever the final score, a Matchday 1 loss was always the most likely outcome. It was the events in Zagreb that shocked the group and made Olympiakos’ campaign an uphill struggle from the start. Much has been made of Dinamo’s domestic home record, even so, few would have parted with their hard earned money and backed the group’s fourth seeds to get a win against Arsenal. Arsenal are giants of the game, previous Premier League winners, 2006 Champions League finalists and current back-to-back winners of the FA Cup. A side too strong for the Croatians, surely? Clearly not, and credit to Dinamo Zagreb, a side that can now boast of their scalps at home in European competition, not just Croatian league success. The two games against the side from the Croatian capital now take on even more importance should Olympiakos have any hope of playing knockout European football this season.
Since their defeat against Dinamo, Arsenal have experienced mixed fortunes back home. In the aftermath of the European defeat they fell to a second defeat in front of the world’s cameras, losing the big Premier League clash with Chelsea 2-0. Arsenal’s discipline was the focus of yet more attention as Gabriel Paulista was sent off following two yellow cards in a spicy encounter with their cross-city rivals. The Gunners’ fortunes have improved since the defeat to Jose Mourinho’s side. They contested a league cup tie with bitter north London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, where they were 2-1 winners securing their place in the fourth round. This Saturday they were again winners, against Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City. An entertaining game, something of a goal fest with the Londoners winning 5-2 in a game which saw Alexis Sanchez return to scoring ways with a hat-trick helping his side to the win.
A return to form for Sanchez is the last thing Oly fans would want to see ahead of our tie, but some comfort can be taken from the Gunners’ seeming current inability to keep a clean sheet. Leicester City striker, Jamie Vardy, got his name on the scoresheet twice and provided a headache for the Arsenal defence all afternoon as he saw efforts going wide and hitting the woodwork. Whoever starts in attack for Thrylos tomorrow, if they work hard in pulling the defenders out of position there are weaknesses in the Arsenal defence to be exploited – just as Leicester’s young England striker proved. As someone that follows both the Premier League and the Superleague closely, I can safely say it is not scoring against Arsenal that worries me – I’m confident we can score, even at the Emirates. It is defending against the Arsenal attack that is a cause for concern.
Olivier Giroud finds himself suspended for tomorrow night’s fixture after receiving his marching orders against Dinamo Zagreb. Arsenal being without their main striker is not as comforting a thought as it first appears. The Gunners will almost certainly start with Theo Walcott upfront now. Having spent much of his career out on the right wing, the player has always stressed that it is as centre forward he sees his future and his preferred position. Walcott possesses great pace and will be sure not to give our central defenders a quiet night. Theo Walcott scored on the weekend against Leicester, a goal that gives Theo a record of 12 goals in his last 13 Premier League starts. Alexis Sanchez is likely to start on the left side of the Arsenal attack, Omar Elabdellaoui (if starting) will have to be on top of his game an ensure he doesn’t allow the Chilean any space. Sanchez’s hat-trick on the weekend makes him the first player to score hat-tricks in Serie A, La Liga and the Premier League. The former Barcelona man was the Gunners’ top scorer last season, finding the net on 25 occasions, and will be full of confidence after his weekend master class. Santi Carzorla is expected to feature tomorrow night, while not as potent a goal threat as Walcott or Sanchez, Carzorla is instrumental to the Arsenal attack. During his time at the club, the Spaniard has provided more assists than any other player. Carzorla could be played wide right allowing Mesut Özil to play a central attacking midfield role or Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain could be given a start on the right which would then see Carzorla employed in the number ten role with Özil on the bench or further back in central midfield. Whatever attacking combination Arsene Wenger decides on it will be a very strong one. The Thrylos defence cannot afford to switch off for even a moment tomorrow night. Arsenal aren’t quite firing on all cylinders just yet, although, their win on the weekend suggests they are on their way back. We should not fear Arsenal, we should be brave enough to attack and know they are susceptible at the back and are “there for the taking”, but we need to be on the ball – disciplined and accurate in all we do. If we allow Arsenal to win possession at the back they have the players to punish most sides in Europe on the counter. It will be a big test for the likes of Masuaku and Elabdellaoui, who love to get forward, it is the biggest asset of their game. They need to be calm and sensible with their attacking runs, and make sure that they don’t leave themselves wanting with the likes of Sanchez and Carzorla only too happy to pounce on any mistake, only requiring seconds to take the ball from one end of the pitch to the other – and most crucially – in the net.
The latest news suggests that Francis Coquelin has returned to training for Arsenal ahead of tomorrow’s game while Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta have both been ruled out.
For Olympiakos, it was expected Siovas and Botia would start at the heart of the defence as they did on the weekend but reports today suggest Manuel Da Costa could return from injury earlier than expected. Chori Dominguez is also a possibility for a return from injury after missing the last few games since the last Champions League tie. Giannis Maniatis is still on the injury list while Luka Milivojevic will miss the game through suspension. Esteban Cambiasso should return to the starting line-up after sitting out the 5-1 win over Giannina as an unused substitute. Recent star man, Jimmy Durmaz’s exclusion from the European squad will give Silva his biggest headache as he chooses he wide options from Seba, Hernani and Pardo with none of them currently in top form.